California is facing the worst drought on record. (Wikimedia Commons:Public Domain)

The recent push for geoengineering in the face of growing concerns about climate change reminded me of a news story from a few years back.  This headline tells it all: “Why did LA Drop 96 Million ‘Shade Balls’ into Its Water?”

In an attempt to slow evaporation and halt algae growth, LA dropped millions of black polyethylene balls into its water reservoir. The news was received on social media with exclamations of “Cool,” “Wow,” and “Awesome.”

It seems we continue to be in denial that our actions — all of our actions — have enormous consequences. The list of proposed climate change geoengineering quick fixes is lengthy, but let’s drill down into LA’s small — and really rather clever — initiative to see why we need to think long and hard before we create a patchwork of geoengineering bandaids. Here’s my take:

  1. This is a reactionary measure. Dumping a bunch of black plastic balls into a body of water addresses NONE of the underlying causes for California’s drought woes. It does NOT mitigate climate change. It puts a bandaid on a growing suppurating wound.
  2. This measure actually contributes to drought. That’s right. These plastic balls are made of petrochemicals, a major cause of global warming. And as we know, climate change caused or at least exacerbated the drought that California only this year emerged from. Worse still, the petroleum used to manufacture these balls will have been refined, transported, processed, and transported again, a chain of CO2 emitting steps enabled by the burning of petroleum products. Within the broad perspective, these balls are contributing to climate change and making droughts like this one worse.
  3. These balls directly increase global warming. These balls are black, so they absorb heat. They are significantly darker than the water that they cover and therefore they will reflect less heat.

As global warming manifests itself in a million unpleasant ways, these kinds of reactionary measures will propagate. As the crisis worsens, they will almost certainly become more bold and more desperate. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. We are all beginning to panic, but through our fog of fear and anxiety, we must be critical of these projects. For too long we’ve looked at problems (and solutions) in isolation, but if we are to stop the worst of climate change, we’re going to have to be smarter than that.

Photo: California is facing the worst drought on record. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)



I’ve been writing about “ethical oil” for some time, trying to understand the language that justifies the expansion of the Alberta oil sands. For a wordie like me, tracing the origins of this linguistic frame from Ezra Levant’s 2010 bestseller through its evolution — politically, culturally, and corporately motivated — to its current use by media, politicians, industry, and the public is fascinating. And a moral responsibility. This summer, I’m writing a book about the phenomenon.

After I finished entering the final marks for my last spring course, I packed up Willow, and we rendezvoused with Zane at Niskonlith Reserve in Secwepemc territory outside of Kamloops. Zane had been helping the Tiny House Warriors with their tiny house build. The Warriors and Water Protectors will be using the houses to protest and block the Transmountain Pipeline Expansion. We stayed at the build a couple of nights. Willow made a new dog friend, and we hammered in a few more nails. It was a welcome respite from the city.

Once we left the reserve, we were on our way to visit my sister in Squamish. Along the way, we heard that 12 Greenpeace activists were hanging from the Ironworkers’ Memorial Bridge and blocking a tanker that was trying to leave Burrard Inlet. It was the bridge we’d be driving over to get to Squamish.

We knew some of the activists: Mike Hudema, Mary Lovell, and Emma Jackson. I admire them all. It is impossible, even in BC, not to feel the animosity of the people who feel invested in the oil sands industry. I especially admire Emma. She is from Edmonton. As an Edmontonian myself, I know it can be challenging living in an environment where many who see you are a traitor to your people for believing that we need to curtail oil sands expansion. As someone who strongly believes we must “leave it in the ground,” I cautiously tiptoe around the subject of the oil sands. I’ll talk about climate change, but I’ll avoid discussing its connection to the bituminous sands. It’s a ridiculous disconnect that I must embrace if I’m going to engage people about climate change effectively. Despite my frustration, working at a university holds many advantages. I spend my days surrounded by young people in a degree program that prizes itself with teaching critical thinking, so the students I teach are responsive to critical discussion. We may not agree on the particulars of an issue, but we can talk calmly and rationally. I often find myself thinking, “Huh. I never thought about it that way,” after we’ve discussed some current issue in class. It’s the sort of discussion that helps me grow as a person and an instructor.

I’ve watched Mike’s, Emma’s and Mary’s social media feeds during this action as I have with past actions. Sometimes they will ask for help combing through the hundreds of posts that people write on their feeds. Help deleting or reporting the hate-filled calls: “Why don’t you wrap that rope around your neck and hang yourself,” “Get a real job!” “What a c*nt” and “We need snipers picking you off. You r*tards know nothing about oil sands.” I will go through the posts reporting the ugliest and deleting what I can. My stomach will begin to crawl, my head swim, and my skin prickle. That’s when say, “Enough. I can’t do this anymore.” I’m thankful that there are also posts of gratitude and well-wishing. Posts that say, “Love you,” and “Thank you for what you do.” Yep. Edmonton can be a challenging place to live. Mike moved to the coast a couple months ago. I know many others who have done the same.

Zane and I were not in a rush to get to Squamish, so we had time to stop in on the protest. I googled Bates Park. We pulled off the main highway and parked near tall cedars. After a ten-minute walk through coastal rainforest, we found the news cameras, the Greenpeace crew, the protest supporters, and a long line of parked police cars. There was a festive sense to the scene. Small girls ran to Willow. They cooed and stroked her fur. An Indigenous woman pounded a drum and sang.  Burning sage scented the air. We were immediately made to feel welcome.


Our timing was perfect. We watched as the police boat cruised around the inlet and an RCMP officer rappelled down to speak to Mike in his harness. Another hour and the protesters would have been gone from the bridge. I was able to interview a fellow with a protest sign: HONK if you oppose bailing out Texas billionaires with your hard-earned tax dollars! It turned out that he was one of the first group arrested at the Kinder Morgan gates back in March. I also spoke with a woman from Greenpeace International. Zane knew her from the time he helped with a couple of Greenpeace actions. I had more material for my book. We would drive to Klahanie Campground that evening, and I would sit beside an idyllic creek, and type out my book. Soon we’ll return to Alberta where I’ll finish my book. If it’s published next year, as I hope it will be,  I wonder what the repercussions will be. Will I be told I should be shot or hanged? Will I be called a c*nt or a r*tard and told to get a real job? I don’t know, but if so, I’ll be in good company.



I haven’t blogged for a long time, but it’s summer and I’m back at it.

This is the talk I gave for the People’s Climate March in Edmonton this spring.

And here is the transcript:

We NEED to talk about climate change! You all get that. By coming here today you’re showing that you know climate change is important. But what about the people who aren’t here? How can we engage them in this conversation? Because we MUST engage them in this conversation.

I teach Communications and we’re always going on about Audience and Purpose. It turns out, knowing your audience and your purpose matter. They matter just as much if you’re crafting a Press Release as if you’re talking to Uncle Jo at the Family Reunion.

If my purpose is to convince someone that climate change is important, if I want someone to reduce their carbon footprint, I need to know a bit about that person. What are their world views and values? If I’m talking to Uncle Jo, and I know that Jo thinks Donald Trump has great business acumen, I’m not going to start talking about polar bears. Because if I do, he’s going to think I’m a “left-wing wacko,” and that will be the end of that. But maybe I can mention how I’m thinking about installing solar panels because they’re going to add resale value to my house or because I don’t want to depend on a volatile energy market, and that might be my way of introducing the topic of climate change, and — hey — did you hear that we’re losing our outdoor rinks in Alberta?

And I still believe that leading by example is a powerful form of communication.

Not too long ago I moved to the North East End of the city. It’s the perfect house — well… the perfect price. I immediately felt buyer’s remorse. It was so far away from everything, especially MacEwan. Takes me almost half an hour to drive to work, and I hate the drive. But it seemed way too far to ride my bike. Yet every day my colleague, Marlene, would ride into the office. In the winter she’d come in a cloud of ice fog. Her cheeks glowing bright red. She’d take off her goggles, smile, and say, “A bit brisk out there today!” I’m watching this for months. So I’d say, “How’s traffic? What’s your route like?” She’d answer. She never tried to shame me. And one day, I thought, “Roberta, you’re being ridiculous. If Marlene can do this, so can you.” I figured out the best possible route. I got my gear together, and I did it. I found that I love riding my bike to work. Instead of spending 25 minutes frustrated with everyone around me. I spend 35 feeling on top of the world. Once again, I’m that 10-year-old girl on her bright yellow 5-speed racing bike, riding the mean streets of Camrose.

Let’s create a vision.

What if everyone in Edmonton rode a bike or took public transit — say — 3 times a week. How would that change our city? Let’s look at this from Uncle Jo’s perspective: It would reduce congestion. It would cut back on the wear and tear of our roads, so we’d save money. We’d save money on parking and gas too. We’d all be healthier. We’d end up with more walkable communities. And… we’d reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This brings me to my last point: We MUST create a positive vision for the future.

Because climate change can seem frightening, but just CHANGE can seem frightening too.

We need to show that mitigating climate change is good for all of us. We all benefit from reliable energy. We all benefit from healthier lifestyles. We all benefit from clean air and clean water.

So when you leave here today, please take the climate change message with you. Talk to Uncle Jo. Set an example for your colleagues. Let’s show everyone that positive change is possible.

Thank you.


Writing Memoir


I recently taught a class on writing “hermit crab stories” for Third Verb Writing Workshops. At some point, I mentioned that I would come up with a list of my “Top 10 Favourite Memoirs” and send it out to the workshop participants so they could do some extra reading.

As it turned out I was incapable of composing a favourites list. It’s just too dependent upon my mood at the time. I also realized that my favourite memoirs aren’t necessarily the ones that I’ve learned the most from. Instead I decided to compose a list of “10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From.” This is not a definitive list, and I suspect that if you were to ask me again in a year, I’d probably give you a different list — but here it is:

10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From

  1. Of This Earth by Rudy Wiebe: This one will always be on my top ten list. Wiebe’s use of language is lyrical and poetic and his incorporation of ephemera is masterful, but the aspect of his memoir that I can’t forget is the way in which he builds effect over time. When Wiebe’s childhood self experiences an epiphany, the reader experiences it too.
  2. A Promise of Salt by Lori Misek: Misek comes to terms with her sister’s murder. Use of broken narrative and white space is breathtaking.
  3. Stitches by David Small (graphic memoir): Poignant and bizarre and terrifying.
  4. A Likely Story by Robert Kroetsch: Kroetsch’s memoir is a written collage and like a visual collage, meaning is created slowly as the reader examines each piece.
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: If you didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, you will feel like you did.
  6. Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story by Peter Midgley: Like his poetry, Midgley’s prose is rich and textured.
  7. The Book of Small by Emily Carr: Her writing isn’t complex, but its simplicity complements her stories.
  8. Rosina the Midwife by Jessica Kluthe: I’ve always been attracted to writers who are able to weave various elements into the narrative. I have tried to do this with my own long-form works.
  9. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy: A memoir that teaches us both what to do and (perhaps) what not to do. Poetic and lyrical, but the author is not entirely likeable and that makes for an interesting read.
  10. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This is a classic of the genre, but I found the author’s incessant complaining about writing irritating. It undermined her “ethical appeal” (as we’d say in rhetoric) or authorial credibility. Having said that, Dillard is masterful in other ways. She is able to look at the common, the everyday and turn it into something magical.



Last week I sat down for a chat with Jessica Kluthe from Third Verb. I’ll be teaching Tell it with a Twist (memoir writing) this Thursday, September 29, for Third Verb, so we spoke about writing true stories and my book, Weaving a Malawi Sunrise. If you’re interested, you can still sign up by going to the Third Verb website.

Here’s our conversation:

What drew you to telling true stories?

People’s stories are precious, and if they go untold they can be lost. But stories have value historically, culturally, and emotionally. Stories help us connect to others’ experiences, which creates understanding. They remind us that we are all human.

What drew you to this particular story?

I met Memory Chazeza in 2006 when she came to speak at the Rotary District Conference in Stony Plain. I had been asked to photograph the event. I was captivated by her personal story.

Memory had been orphaned at a young age and grown up in poverty. In spite of the challenges, she never lost hope. She was determined to go to post-secondary school and support her family and her community. This seemed unrealistic for a woman living in rural Malawi, but Memory was determined, and ultimately she not only received a post-secondary degree, she built a school and now she is a role model for the young women of her country.

While this is a tremendous achievement, Memory’s journey was filled with obstacles. She often went hungry so that she could spend her days volunteer teaching at a nearby school. She was threatened with rape by men in her community, and initially she was called a “lazy girl” by her family.

I remember her saying, “The world is made for the stubborn” when recalling her life, and I thought, “How true that is.” It seemed that her story should be told, so I set out to tell it.

Did anything unexpected come out of traveling to Malawi and then writing Weaving a Malawi Sunrise?

On my travels, I met many women with incredible stories — each one more remarkable than the last. Their stories made me realize that we are all given hardships and challenges in our lives. It’s how we face these challenges that come to define us.

After taking on such a large creative non-fiction project, how has your writing practice evolved?

I’ve realized that anything is possible, but you must write in order to write. It may seem self-evident, but if we are going to write long works we must be disciplined enough to put our bums in our chairs, turn off social media and write! It really is a discipline thing, but completing a complex, multi-year project has reinforced what must be done and what can be accomplished.

Telegram Memories

Hope and Bill 1931.jpg

In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola describe the “hermit crab” essay: “This type of essay appropriates existing forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly.” The shells are borrowed from fiction and poetry as well as common written ephemera such as recipes, social media, or lists. The contents are “tender.” Next week, I’ll be teaching a workshop on memoir writing where we’ll be exploring the use of these “hermit crab” forms: Tell It With A Twist.

My “hermit crab” story, “Telegram Memories,” was published in Issue 60 of filling Station:

Telegram Memories

  1. The photographs show my grandfather as a young man. He is tall with Brylcreemed hair and Clark Gable eyes. In one photo, he smiles down into my grandmother’s eyes. It is this smile that grabbed her heart and never let go, and it is this just-short-of-a-dimpled smile that brings life to his pale blue eyes and spirit to the faded photographs.
  2. As a small boy, my grandfather refused to eat his oatmeal for breakfast. When he came back for lunch he was given the same oatmeal. When he came back for supper he was given the same oatmeal. The next morning, he was given the same oatmeal, and he ate it.
  3. On his first day of grade one, a girl accused him of kicking her in the cloak room. When the teacher stood him before the class and strapped him, he recalled an illustration. In the black and white woodcut, a knight lay dying on the field of battle. The knight gazed up at his murderer through bloodied eyes, and with his dying breath intoned, “You shall rue this day.” My grandfather looked his teacher in the eye and said, “You shall rue this day.” He was strapped again.
  4. He feared snakes his entire life, but he told me this story: As a boy he witnessed the neighbourhood toughs trap a garter snake. They stuffed the snake into an empty Plow Boy tobacco tin and threw it into their fire. My grandfather burned his hands grabbing the can and pulling the snake to safety.
  5. I can see my grandfather now. He is sitting at the kitchen table, elbows holding up his shoulders — he taps the ash from his Export A. Sitting on a makeshift chair by the lake, watching for movement on the far mountainside and listening to birdsong — an Export A rests between his fingers. Leaning back in his swivel chair at the McLure train station, legs crossed — there’s that smile again and that twinkle— and an Export A pressed between his lips.
  6. He longed to return to his childhood home — the rainforests of the West Coast. I remember him saying, “Albruta isn’t a country fit for a white man.”
  7. He was longshoreman, telegraph operator, railroader, Depression Era gambler, writer, dreamer, storyteller, train operator, father, husband — and he was my grandfather.
  8. As punishment he forced his children to stand with their arms outstretched at shoulder height — but never me.
  9. His favourite meal was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding — “Good Anglo-Saxon food.” But he loved everything my grandmother made him. Even when he came around the corner one day to find her pouring Ketchup into the meatloaf mix. “What are you making me eat, Mom?” That was not his idea of “Anglo-Saxon” cooking, but he ate it anyway.
  10. We walked the mountains, the hillsides, the forests, and he told me stories. In those stories lived his characters: ticky bugs and piggy birds, Danny, the mouse, and Scrag, the witch.
  11. My aunts played a game with our German Shephard, Cheko. They pointed a stick, like a gun, and he would grab it. One day, my friend, Linda, raised a stick to Cheko, and he bit her. My grandmother took Linda home, but I don’t remember that. I remember this: I walk outside and see Cheko lying on the ground on his side — panting. His eye is open and dazed with fear. My grandfather is standing above him, a thick chain in his hand. I ask my grandfather what he is doing. He says, “You need to go back in the house.” And like a coward, I did.
  12. He wrote, he typed. His stories are preserved on small, yellowing scraps labeled “CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS Railway Service Telegram.” They are not enough.
  13. When he wasn’t writing, he was expounding. I hear his loud, strident voice: “That bastard Trudeau.” And always, “Line ‘em up against the wall and shoot ‘em.” I don’t remember who was being lined up. Maybe it was a politician that time, but it would be someone else the next.
  14. With Ray Noble and Al Bowley circling our Grundig turntable, my grandfather sang under his breath: “I’m living in a kind of daydream. I’m happy as a king. And foolish though it may seem, to me that’s everything.”
  15. He was able to perfectly imitate the West Coast Tree Frog. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. All the grandkids tried to copy that sound; none ever could.
  16. He read Sir Walter Scott, Erich Remarque and James Thurber. He quoted Rudyard Kipling, “A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair and the fool he called her his lady fair … ” That’s all I remember.
  17. In a very old memory, I sit in the tall grass. Like a typical, idle four-year-old, I pluck at the grass beside me. I hear my grandfather’s gentle voice: “That grass should be allowed to live, just like you and me.”
  18. He told me about the Nanking Massacre, and on December 7, every December 7, he’d say, “Do you know what day this is? It’s the day the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour.”
  19. After his first stroke, he didn’t read anymore. He didn’t write anymore. He didn’t argue anymore. But everyone agreed, he was much easier to get along with.
  20. I visited him as he lay dying slowly, quietly under a stiff white sheet at St. Mary’s Hospital in Camrose. “This is no ticky bug story, Bertie,” he might have said. His voice was too quiet for me to hear.

If you are in Edmonton next week and would like to attend my workshop, Tell It With A Twist, go to Third Verb for more details and to register. Participants will receive a copy of Weaving a Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, A School, A People.



I recently entered an online writing competition. The competition consists of four rounds over six months. The challenge is this: write a flash fiction story of 1000 words or less in 48 hours. The story must be within an assigned genre and setting and must contain an assigned element.

This was my assignment:

genre: Action/Adventure

setting: Igloo

element: a calculator

Full disclosure: I’ve never written an action/adventure story — ever — and I had no idea where to start. The germ of an idea came to me on the hike down from Hidden Valley in the Rockies near Jasper. By the time I was home, it had morphed from an alt history about the Franklin Expedition to a story about enduring love. I wrote the rough draft that night (1300+ words) and edited it down the next morning (1000 words on the nose). My time for research (no internet at the cabin) was limited, so I hope I didn’t make too many cultural or linguistic blunders. Also, typos, I bet there are typos. *groan*

Despite a few initial misgivings, I loved the process. It’s amazing what comes out when you have a tight deadline. Ha, ha.

Anyway, here it is.

Ata and Aput

by Roberta Laurie

Aput was unhappy. He didn’t know how to articulate his sadness, but it weighed on him like the long dark night of winter — close and pressing. He had felt this way ever since his ataatatsiaq, grandfather, died two weeks ago. Ata, he had called him since his small mouth could form the word. It wasn’t that Ata’s death had been unexpected. He had already lived through many winters, and even Aput’s mother said that it was better for him to go before he was flown to a hospital to live his last days a thousand miles from home.

They had been close. It was because of his grandfather that he was named Aput, snow. Ata had insisted on a traditional name. He had wanted to preserve the old ways: showing Aput how to gut fish, skin seal, construct a tallow lantern from hollowed rock. Just two months before Ata’s passing, they had cut and shaped a small igloo from the hard-packed snow. Aput hadn’t visited the igloo since the night he’d spent curled under its opaque dome pressed against his grandfather for warmth, but he suddenly knew he needed to go there. He had to see it again before the spring winds came.

He felt such a rush of knowing, knowing that this was a last way to say goodbye to his grandfather, that he packed quickly. His mother was at work, and if he hurried, he could be home before she knew he was gone. The days were short, so he didn’t have much time. He needed to be home before the Arctic night returned.

He pulled his notebooks, pencils and calculator from his school backpack and replaced them with a box of Smarties, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and the hunting knife that his grandfather had given him for his tenth birthday.

He shrugged on his warmest parka, tucked his feet into his mucklucks, slipped on his sealskin mitts and opened the door. A puff of wind ground ice crystals into his cheeks.

He set off down the snow-packed road, past his auntie’s house, his school, a few more houses, and he was out of town. A limitless white terrain. He followed the line of the airport road then took a sharp turn when he came to Qimmiq River. If he followed the frozen water, he would come to Prayer Rock. From there he would find the igloo.

The journey seemed more arduous without Ata. Here on the vast open tundra with the sun hugging the southern horizon, he felt small and solitary. He was light, so he could easily walk on the snow’s frozen crust. It wasn’t until he came upon a hardened drift that he struggled, but he knew Prayer Rock was not far, so he persevered. Then the giant rock broke the horizon. That gave Aput renewed strength, and although the wind was picking up, he plunged on.

The walk to Prayer Rock was longer than he expected, but the igloo was where he remembered, covered with fallen snow that made its outline faint.

He dropped to his knees and, with mittened hands, scraped the snow from the entrance tunnel. Then he fell to his belly and wiggled his way inside. It was just as he remembered it, snug and dim. For a moment, he thought he could hear Ata’s breath in the small space. He felt safe, and for the first time since his grandfather’s death, he didn’t feel alone.

He unzipped his backpack and pulled out the Smarties, the knife, the water and the flashlight.

He opened the Smarties. Counting ten into his hand, one for each year of his age because Ata always said, “Save some for later.” Then he closed the box. He took the smallest of bites to make them last, and as he nibbled, he wished that Ata were there to eat the Smarties with him. But maybe he was, in a way. If Aput closed his eyes he could see Ata’s smiling face. When he remembered the day that Ata had let him gut a fish without any help, he felt big and important. When he remembered waiting with Ata for the seal to come to the ice’s surface, he felt pride that he could be patient like Ata and the other men.

He had forgotten to eat the last of his Smarties, so he popped it in his mouth. He could hear the wind outside and knew he should leave the igloo. He took a sip of water and repacked his bag. “Goodbye, Ata. I love you,” he whispered into the dimming space. He crawled out to a darkening world. The wind had begun to pick up the snow. He had stayed too long.

Aput could just see the dark shape of Prayer Rock. From there he once again followed the river, but under the darkening sky its outline was indistinct. Aput pulled the flashlight from his pack and flicked its switch. Aput walked as fast as he could, but his small body was pressed by the wind. The wind could trick the ear too, and that may have been the case, but it seemed like he heard his grandfather’s voice, “Keep walking.” So he did.

Aput’s attention wandered and he thought that he had lost the line of the river, but he heard Ata’s voice on the wind: “Too the right.” And he corrected.

His face was raw and his legs were aching by the time he reached the road: “Almost home,” said the wind.

There were small dots of glimmer in the darkness. “Keep walking,” said Ata.

The lights got closer, and Aput knew he would make it. He began to run.

He ran up the three steps of his house, opened the door, and was home. Cradled by warmth, he shrugged off his pack and hung his coat by the door. He took out the Smarties and sat on the couch. Before opening the box, he whispered, “I love you, Ata,” into the quiet stillness.


Frames, at least the effective ones, have a way of sticking. And in case you’re fuzzy on frames, here’s a definition from the guru of linguistic framing, George Lakoff: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”

To elaborate, frames are the mental associations that we make — involuntarily make — when we hear a word/phrase or see an image. For example, if I say the word “popcorn,” you might think movie or butter or theatre. You may even smell the popcorn’s buttery goodness. The word “popcorn” does not exist in a vacuum. It comes with baggage.

Back 2010, when Ezra Levant published his book, Ethical Oil, he established a powerful frame. The “ethical oil” frame is more than the title of a book. The “ethical oil” frame establishes the Alberta oil sands as “ethical,” in other words, moral, just, good. Central to this frame are two premises. The first premise is this: the Alberta oil sands produces the “most ethical oil in the world,” not like other oil producers: fascist theocracies, supporters of terrorism, suppressors of human rights. The problem with this argument is that it turns a blind eye to the problems inherent to the oil sands: GHG emissions, water and air contamination, habitat destruction, resource dependence — the bundle of foibles associated with the sands. The argument also generalizes by tapping into existing biases, prejudices and xenophobia. You know: black-bearded terrorists, women forced to wear burqas, and a thousand other associations and barely acknowledged preconceptions.

The second major premise inherent to the “ethical oil” frame is that if the oil produced by the Alberta oil sands is “ethical,” then anyone opposing the development of the Alberta-based industry must be “unethical.” This is the brilliance behind the “ethical oil” frame. Once we connect “ethical” to “oil,” we accept a package deal. If something is “ethical,” the opposite (or those opposing it) must be “unethical.” This sort of argument polarizes an issue. It’s an “either/or” argument that leaves no space for reflection or nuance. This is an argument that vilifies all those who don’t support without reservation. What did George W. Bush say to the world after the 9/11 attack? “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” — a sentiment that led to such cultural peculiarities such as “Freedom Fries” and logical absurdities like “The War on Terror.” You support either “ethical” oil or “unethical” oil production. Done.

To me though, the core problem with a frame like “ethical oil” is that it allows us to maintain a smug sense of self-righteousness. We are beyond reproach. We can justify actions and policies that are inherently problematic without honest discussion. We can simply invoke “ethical oil,” and the problems of fossil fuel consumption and extraction disappear. They become someone else’s. We are unsullied. No debate. No reflection. No problem.

You don’t hear the term “ethical oil” so much these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still alive and well. Enter the media scandal du jour, or as the Edmonton Journal put it, the “Hot Lesbians’ Ad.” The ad is not really unique, I’ve seen dozens of “ethical oil” ads on social media. What sets this ad apart is not its poor taste but its level of poor taste.

The ad shows two young, physically attractive (hot) women (lesbians) kissing. The text reads, “In Canada lesbians are considered hot. In Saudi Arabia if you’re a lesbian, you die. Why are we getting our oil from countries that don’t think lesbians are hot? Choose equality! Choose Canadian oil!”


The poster was produced by Robbie Picard, formerly of the I Love Oilsands campaign, for his own creation, the Canada Oil Sands Community. Picard didn’t expect so much negative backlash, but he defends his choice: “When I say lesbians are hot, I don’t think there is anything wrong about saying that.” Yet the ad set off a social media counterblast: “When rednecks try to pinkwash, I turn green from nausea,” “It appears Ezra Levant hired a team of 17 year old boys to develop Canada Oil Sands Community’s “hot lesbian” themed ad campaign. I think I’m going to puke. How stupid can these people be?” and “I can’t wait to see the inevitable parody with two bare-chested male oilsands workers. Suck that up, Oilsands Community,” and that was indeed close behind. My favourite was a Brokeback Mountain still with the caption “Just can’t quit you tarsands crude.” Yes. I was amused.

In spite of the backlash, there were supporters, and there was a LOT of publicity. Maybe that was Picard’s intent. Whatever the case, the meme would not have worked without an existing frame. Without the “ethical oil” frame, the meme would have lacked resonance. It is given meaning because it expands on our existing perception that because there is intolerance for lesbians in Saudi Arabia, the bitumen extracted from the Alberta oil sands is “ethical.”

Frames build upon cultural norms, but they also help to establish cultural norms, and once a frame is established it becomes the air we breath. A strong frame is difficult to challenge because by talking about the frame, we engage it. We stop discussing issues with any sort of objectivity because the frame envelops the concept. We see it through the lens of the frame. The linguistic frame.

The “ethical oil” frame is more than two words, it informs our perceptions, our beliefs and our understanding. Like the smell of buttery popcorn, it has become part of who we are.

Summer Haiku


Next week, I’ll be teaching a series of classes on nature writing for this year’s YouthWrite. I’ve been wanting to teach more creative writing for some time, so I’m looking forward to sharing two of my favourite things — nature and writing — with a group young writers.

As part of the class on form, I thought it might be fun to write haiku. Although haiku has evolved to explore many modern subjects, traditionally it was a meditation on the natural world. A sort of “look at this” or “see what I found” snapshot. The Instagram of poetry. Perfect.

The form is bendy. There’s more to haiku than 5-7-5. Capturing an image or conveying a feeling is its essence. The 5-7-5 is somewhat flexible. Also perfect.

It’s been a long time since I wrote haiku, so I thought I should practice ahead of time. I enjoyed the process, so I’ll share a few:


The mountain stands, touched

by slow-moving, sumptuous clouds

and holds its secrets


A warm wind flows

Through aspen leaves and branches.

Nature’s kaleidoscope.


Rose petals create

Hillsides splashed with pink,

Nectar for hummingbirds.


Yellow lady slippers,

Delicate and refined,

Collect the morning dew.


Cups of butter

Balancing on thin stems

Skip across the speckled meadows.


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Earlier this month, I gave a presentation at the Climate Change: Views from the Humanities Conference. It was hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara, and it was billed as a “Nearly Carbon-Free Conference” because it took place entirely online.

As explained on the conference’s home page, “had this been a traditional fly-in conference, our slate of speakers would have had to collectively travel over 300,000 miles, generating the equivalent of over 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the process. This is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of 50 people living in India, 165 in Kenya. A conference that takes up the issue of climate change while simultaneously contributing to the problem to such a degree would be simply unconscionable.”

This is quite a departure from traditional high-profile, large-carbon-footprint conferences, which host speakers from around the world who deliver papers live to their audiences. Instead of flying to California, I recorded my presentation, and it was uploaded to the conference website. I don’t feel cheated. This is an enormous step forward for our profession, and I’m immensely honoured to be a part of this progressive initiative.

Apart from the obvious benefits, I found that the online discussion was far richer than typical conference Q&A. Posters had time to reflect upon the presentations, the questions, and the answers, so the discussion was thoughtful and in-depth. I believe that having this vast resource archived and available for public viewing is also a benefit. Often we hear that the public doesn’t have easy access to academic work, but that is not the case here. The conference presentations are now a public resource.

You can watch my presentation here.  I encourage you to check out the other talks included in this link: Matthew Fledderjohann’s talk: Al Gore’s Armageddon? The Persuasive Binary of Apocalyptic Rhetoric within Climate Change Discourse and Sheryl-Ann Simpson’s Snap, Tag, Share: Seeing the Small Picture of #OurChangingClimate.

Below you will find the transcript for my talk: Let’s NOT Talk: Silencing the Climate. If you would like more information about my sources, feel free to ask:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. — the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report

Today we confront an unprecedented threat: Climate change is endangering our environment, our species and our way of life. Yet there are ongoing obstracles to the implementation of meaningful policy changes that would mitigate the worst of climate catastrophe. Even though over 97% of climate scientists agree that current climate-warming trends are due to human activity, (NASA) we still face climate denial and apathy.

According to Dale Jamieson, scholar of environmental ethics and analyst of climate change discourse, climate science has been muddied by an organized campaign utilizing “influential opinion leaders, backed by large sums of money, [who] have successfully worked to cast doubt on mainstream climate science.” This has led to confusion, climate denial and “policy paralysis.”

Let me use a personal example to illustrate. A few weeks ago, I responded to this Facebook post: “Is global warming man made and it can be reversed, or is it just happening anyway? Recently 31,000 scientists gathered and could not reach a consensus, and after reading so many articles, I have no idea.” I assume the “recent” gathering this poster was referring to is the 2008 petition project initiated by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. At the time, the Institute was trying to cast doubt on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. The petition received the endorsement of 31,000 “scientists.” These scientists included almost anyone with a Bachelor of Science or higher in fields ranging from engineering to medicine. ( But these more subtle details are often lost on social media.

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of denialist posts on the internet, but this one stood out. It seemed to sincerely question, as though its author was confused by the choices presented by a Facebook scroll or Google search. It made me wonder where we’ve gone wrong. Why are so many people still confused about the origin of climate change? How can we better communicate about climate change in a way that motivates action?

The campaign of climate denial has been led by the fossil fuel industry, conservative think tanks, and outspoken right-wing pundits. (Dunlap) With the help of a few “contrarian scientists,” this coalition of doubters has sown enough uncertainty about the science of climate change and the motives of the global community that a significant portion of the population — 56% of Canadians and 66% of Americans — still don’t see climate change as a “very serious” issue.  (Ipsos Global Advisor December 2015)

Bill Nye the Science Guy has fought tirelessly against the climate denial movement. He believes that “the climate denial movement is running out of steam.” (; Lewis) Bad puns aside, Nye is likely right, at least in the long run. Millenials are far more likely to believe that climate change is the result of human activity than seniors. (Pew, 2015) While demographics are on the side of climate science, accepting that we are responsible for climate change is challenging for a multitude of reasons (many beyond the scope of this discussion).

Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial, points out that knowledge of climate change conflicts with individual and collective senses of identity. It challenges our longing to be “good.” Even more culturally problematic according to Peter J. Jacques (2012) is that “climate change science provides an imminent critique of industrial power, Western modernity, and the ideals of Western progress. It would challenge the central workings of ‘modern’ society” (p. 11)” The logical sequel to climate science could be somewhat uncomfortable. If we’re honest with ourselves, the future is uncertain. We still can’t know what we will lose as a result of climate change nor what sacrifices will need to be made once we confront our own culpability. If denial is the first stage of mourning the loss of our current privilege, we may still have a long way to go.

Climate denial may be “running out of steam,” but it still hasn’t run out of hot air. The top running candidates for the Republican party are both self-proclaimed deniers. On the campaign trail Ted Cruz has embraced climate denial by claiming that “the scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming,” and he suggests climate science is, in essence, a plot by “liberal politicians who want government power over the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.” ( Donald Trump is another denialist: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he tweeted. (Twitter, 2012) More recently he reaffirmed his position: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop” (Twitter, 2014) Either of these men could become the next president of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

It’s no surprise that the frontrunners for the Republican party nomination are noted climate deniers. Belief in climate change has become politicized, a matter of identity. The PEW Research Center’s (2014) poll results tell us that 27% of Republicans believe climate change is caused by human activity in contrast to 71% of Democrats.

We often make the assumption that people need “the facts.” Once they have the right facts, they will come to the proper conclusions, and they will make the right decisions. But this assumption has proven to be false. Dan Kahan (2012, 2013) believes that climate denial is ideologically motivated — that “positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.” In other words, people will evaluate facts based upon their “cultural community.” It is not reasonable to expect people to want to isolate themselves from their peers by adopting beliefs that are at odds with those with whom they work, live and socialize. Instead they are more likely to “acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand” (2012). People may be aware of the facts, but if those facts are not coming from a respected source, their validity may be discounted. Countries or regions economically dependent upon the fossil fuel industry are presented with yet another cognitive challenge.

My home province of Alberta depends on oil revenues to balance its budget. These days over half of that revenue comes from the Alberta oil sands, the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world. But the oil sands present a number of challenges. Oil (or more accurately bitumen) extracted from the oil sands produces significantly higher GHG emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Alberta has another problem. It is a landlocked province without the infrastructure to move large volumes of bitumen to a world market.

The province recently elected Rachel Notley of the New Democrats, a traditionally left-wing, progressive party. After a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, many environmentalists assumed the province would be governed by a party that would put a stop to the region’s pipeline controversy or at least be more moderate in its approach. Under the previous government, cabinet minister Doug Griffiths said that the energy sector “sucks the life out of every other aspect of Alberta.” He was later heavily criticized for this moment of honesty. (Thomson) This economic dependence is at the heart of the government’s push for pipeline construction. Alberta’s past Finance Minister, Ron Liepert, said it best: “If we don’t get moving on these pipeline projects, our greatest risk in Alberta is that by 2020, we will be landlocked in bitumen.” Past premier Ralph Klein incentivized unfettered oilsands growth, joking that global warming was caused by “dinosaur farts” while Past premier Alison Redford was tireless in her push to build the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Our newly elected progressive premier has released a “Climate Action Plan,” but the plan fails to address oil sands emissions in any meaningful way. Of the Trans Mountain expansion, Notley said the National Energy Board should “recommend approval of the project” (Globe and Mail, Jan. 12, 2016). She pushed hard for Energy East, “It’s critical to the future of our country and to the well-being of every Albertan and every Canadian.” She’s even softened her oppositional stance on the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline. Any of these pipelines would allow for further expansion of the oilsands and a much larger GHG footprint for Canada.

Yet a recent research study published in the journal Nature found that if the world wishes to stay below the 2 degree internationally agreed upon ceiling, the most efficient plan includes “negligible” production within the oil sands by 2020. That’s the prognosis if we wish to stay below 2 degrees, not the 1.5 degree aspiration of COP 21.

After years of obstructing international climate negotiations, Canada did make impressive commitments at the Paris Conference, but the federal government has no effective plan in place to reach its 30% GHG reduction commitment by 2030. According to Canadian climate scientist and leader of BC’s Green Party Dr. Andrew Weaver: “The tar sands remain the largest source of GHG emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” Leading climatologist, James Hansen, has declared continued development of the oil sands means “game over for the climate.” It would appear that there is a profound disconnect between green rhetoric and effective policy.

Norgaard views climate denial as a form of privilege. She points to Norway’s economic advantage, which results largely from its oil extraction in the Northern Sea. She explains that privilege “produces new possibilities for denial,” and writes, “Privileged people are protected from full knowledge of environmental problems by national borders…and their own fine-tuned yet unconscious practices of not noticing, looking the other way, and normalizing the disturbing information they constantly come across.” (Norgaard, 219) The problem of climate change can seem esoteric or impractical in the face of job loss or economic uncertainty.

William Freudenberg (2005) uses the term “double diversion” to describe the privilege of society-environment relationships within the global setting. The first diversion refers to “strikingly unequal patterns of privileged access to environmental rights and resources” (pp. 89&90). Privileged access to resources are often framed within the context of necessary jobs, economic security and energy independence. The second diversion is the diversion of attention. Rather than being called into question, the inequalities of distribution “are almost universally unchallenged.” The expectations that accompany privileged access become “normalized,” — “the social construction of quiescence or ‘non-problematicity’” (cited in Murray, 335).

The communication power of the media is at least partly to blame for this. Raymond Murray (2015) claims that the media is culpable in transforming “what science concludes is a problem into a societal non-problem.” (335) With “Power relationships … [ultimately] defending productivism and consumerism at all costs” (338).

People often become uncomfortable when climate change is linked to industries that support economic security. I’ve noticed a growing acceptance of climate science in my home city of Edmonton, but many Albertans are not willing to accept that the oil sands are a major GHG contributor. The People’s Climate Marches of 2014 and 2015 both drew large crowds of at least several hundred people. Yet I’ve attended a number of rallies protesting various oil sands projects, and I’ve never stood with more than a handful of protesters, a couple dozen familiar faces.

This contrast offers some insight into how to engage citizens and create consensus. Alberta is too close to the oils sands to see its downside with any objectivity. We not only depend upon the sands for our economic wellbeing, oil and gas is part of our cultural identity. The silhouette of the pump jack framed by the prairie horizon is an Alberta icon. When the Edmonton Oilers, one of Alberta’s two professional hockey teams, come onto their home game ice, they skate through a symbolic oil derrick as dry ice fog rises and coloured lights flash. The oil and gas industry may not define Alberta’s identity, but it is an integral part of it. We must be careful that in our haste to engage in climate action, we do not threaten Albertans’ sense of cultural belonging.

Kahan (2010) suggests that information should be presented in a way that “affirms rather than threatens people’s values.” And in the case of Alberta, we must also offer solutions to our economic dependence, solutions that promote progress. This is precisely the tactic that Greenpeace Alberta has chosen.

Greenpeace Canada opened its Alberta office in 2007 with the “Stop the Tar Sands” campaign, a series of high-profile actions meant to draw the world’s attention to the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands. They succeeded in their task, but they made few friends in the province itself.

In November 2014 Greenpeace changed its tactics. They launched their “Go Solar” campaign by climbing the historic Leduc drilling derrick that launched Alberta’s oil boom 70 years ago. There they hung a large banner declaring “Go Solar: 100% Climate Safe.” At the foot of the derrick, they installed a solar panel that powered their sound system. It was a small action, but it marked a transition for the NGO. Two days later, the Royal Alberta Museum phoned Mike Hudema, Greenpeace’s Alberta-based Climate and Energy Campaigner, asking for the banner to add to their collection. This marked a symbolic shift for a province integrally connected to the petroleum industry. Since then Greenpeace messaging has focused on sustainable energy, green jobs and promotion of the solar sector. These are messages that virtually everyone in the province can get behind. They suggest innovation, progress and economic growth.

Kahan also suggests that scientific evidence should be vouched for by a diverse set of experts. By including advocates who appeal to the audience, people feel they can consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

This is the reason Pope Francis’s strong stance on climate change is important to engaging with over a billion Catholics worldwide. In his encyclical, Pope Francis points to “very solid scientific consensus [which] indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” He calls on humanity “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming.” (LS 23)

Two months after the Pope released his encyclical, Muslim clerics, Islamic scholars and environmental advocates met in Istanbul to call for action on climate change. “Islam teaches us: ‘Man is simply a steward holding whatever is on Earth in trust,’” says Sheikh Shaban Ramadhan Mubaje, Uganda’s grand mufti. The declaration calls on all Muslims (1.6 billion worldwide) to “recognize the corruption that humans have caused on the Earth due to our relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption,” and the ultimate consequence of these actions: climate change.

These declarations reach populations that may not accept scientific consensus. They change the conversation from an esoteric scientific debate into a moral imperative for a significant segment of the world’s population.

The climate denial movement may be losing steam, but we must continue to build consensus in a way that avoids further polarization of the issue. We must follow a strategy that includes rather than excludes. For too long we’ve pitted ourselves against opponents instead of embracing potential allies, and we need all the allies we can get in the fight against climate change.