Touching This Storied Land
I’m a bit of a hippy. Not a pot-smoking, free-love sort of hippy, but the tree-hugging, we-are-all-connected sort. I believe strongly in the values of responsibility and compassion, not just social responsibility and compassion for my fellow humans but responsibility and compassion toward all living beings.
Living in Edmonton has been rewarding at times and challenging at others. I’m part of a vibrant and growing writing community, and I live five minutes away from a system of river valley trails that allows me access to a world of green leaves and bird song. While it’s true that in the winter, Edmonton rolls up its streets and becomes a world of mall shopping and mega cinemas, in the summer, the city comes alive with farmers’ markets, community gardens, festivals and patio dining . . . but then there are the “truck nuts,” the jacked up 4x4s, and the ostentatious lifestyles. These aspects of Alberta culture, I’m not so comfortable with.
At the gym the other day, my friend, Connie, said she had the perfect tagline for the new Alberta license plate: Alberta, we all come to work here. That seems about right.
Alberta is a province of jobs — jobs fueled by the oil and gas industry. In one way or another we Albertans all rely on the oil and gas industry for survival. It employs us directly and indirectly, both through the mercurial Fort Mac job market and our province’s infrastructure — whether public or private. If we closed down the oil sands overnight, we’d be left with a bunch of trees, a few ski resorts and a lot of farmland. Nothing to sneeze at, but is it enough to fuel a provincial economy? Maybe not.
And this fact alone should give pause. As the economic powerhouse of Canada, why have we allowed ourselves to become utterly dependent upon a single industry? Shouldn’t we be using the largesse of this opportunity to diversify? To search for sustainable energy solutions? To become world leaders in sustainable energy solutions? This is one of the questions I will ask in my book, Touching This Storied Land: Exploring the Narratives and Debate that Surround the Alberta Oil Sands.
The politics of oil are complex. Historically, living on top of rich oil beds comes at a cost to independence, stability and long-term economic security. This may seem counterintuitive, but one does not need to look far to see examples of the terrible cost of oil: Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea are just two in a long list of countries that have been romanced by the lure of easy riches yet soon come to loath their destructive power. “But wait,” you might say. “Canada isn’t a developing country ruled by some third rate despot. We’re different, aren’t we?” The answer to that is “mostly yes” but also “no.” When it comes to fossil fuels, there is the potential for immense profit. Partner mythical riches with a slavering, near bottomless demand and you have a resource that, like the djinni in the bottle, can wreck unintended havoc on its “beneficiary.”
In Alberta I’ve lived the benefits and the downsides of the oil industry. In the good times we are a booming province whose coffers seem to have no limit, but when the price of oil drops, we are just another people looking for work and struggling to adjust to cutbacks. Even in the good times, economic boom comes at a cost. And what is the cost of this intense monetary prosperity: a turned eye, an entrenched government, marginalized communities, a questionable future? At one time I did turn away, but I can’t any longer. I can’t simply reap the temporary benefits of our oil economy without questioning what will become of us, what will become of this beautiful province I call home.
Three years ago I embarked on a quest to attain a master’s degree. I didn’t know where the degree would take me, but I was pretty sure it would be an adventure. I was not disappointed.
I’m a communicator; I’m a reader; I’m a writer. I believe in the power of words and their ability to persuade, coerce and cajole, so ultimately I chose to write my thesis on the framing of “ethical oil.” I learned a lot about rhetoric, propaganda, world views and values during this time. This was more than a mechanical exercise in analysis. This was a gateway into another reality. At times I felt as though I was living inside someone else’s head — someone who appeared to share none of the values or beliefs that are at the core of my being. It was not a pleasant experience.
Yet I took away an important “knowing” from this experience. As disparate as we may appear, we are all human. We are all, more or less, motivated by the same needs and desires. We wish for a way to support our families. We hope to breathe clean air. We need clean water to survive. We want a house, a home. And we hope our children will grow up in a place free from conflict so they will be able to live out their lives in relative happiness. These ideals and ambitions are not extraordinary. They are common to all of us, so why are we so polarized over an issue such as the oil sands? Are the oil sands good or bad for Alberta? Canada? The Earth? Do we know? Do we care?
In Alberta there are those who believe the oil sands are good for the province and those who believe they are not (or at least not given the way they are being managed at this time). There are those who believe we are giving our resources away to multinational corporations and those who don’t care who extracts the oil as long as jobs are abundant and prosperity continues. This analysis is simplistic, but it seems like a good place to start.
If we are to move forward on the issue of sustainable energy and resource stewardship, I believe we must create understanding and respect between those who oppose oil sands development and those who support it. To this end, I am setting out on a journey of inquiry. I hope to learn how people’s lives are affected by the oil and gas industry here in Alberta. I want to grasp the personal reasons why people oppose or condone the oil sands. In an effort to encourage understanding and cooperation among Albertans and Canadians, I will collect the stories of those people most touched by the oil sands: the oil sands workers, the geologists, the politicians, the business owners, the activists, the oil and gas industry, the civil servants, the scientists, the families, the First Nations, the environmentalists, the spiritual leaders, the average Albertan — the people fighting to keep the oil sands open and those fighting to shut it down.
I believe the best way to promote dialogue, discussion and understanding is through the telling of stories. So that’s where I’m headed with my writing. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.