June 4, 2014

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Attracts Criticism Around Comments at Climate Change Conference. ~ Guenevere Neufeld

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

An opinion piece I saw in Monday’s Montreal Gazette slammed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s assessment of the Albertan oilsands with the headline, “Tutu’s oilsands sermon built on emotion not on facts.”

Yeah, I was shocked, too.

Not at the Anglican Archbisop’s survey of the decimated land around Fort MacMurray, but at Michael Den Tandt’s continuing commentary.

Tutu was in Northern Alberta recently taking part in a conference on climate change sponsored in part by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Den Tandt started by stating anti-pipeline lobbyists have debased the debate “beyond belief” by, as he said, ignoring the facts. After which, he began to undermine the validity of Tutu’s criticism of the oilsands—the colossal environmental and human rights failure—by saying the true culprits are the consumers who purchase gas guzzling vehicles in the first place.

It was then I could only sit in bewilderment. It was a kind of bewilderment that made its way to sadness. Because, you see, I can’t argue with sales reports.

The piece states that transportation accounts for about 25 percent of Canada’s emissions and talks about the propensity of my fellow Canadians to purchase large, gas guzzling pick-up trucks while smaller, more fuel efficient cars sit in dealer’s lots. Den Tandt argued Tutu’s broad criticism of Canada’s energy sector is misguided, that it should be directed on individual consumers.

Now, I’ve been losing some of my naivety as I edge toward that 30 mark. As the years pile on, I have begun to be more and more disillusioned than I was in my idealist youth.

I now understand that the average consumer really does want to buy large, gas guzzling vehicles. Not everyone makes the same choices I’ve made at times in my life: purposely living near work; biking and walking as the main modes of transportation; and driving my hybrid when longer distances were necessary (if memory serves me correctly, that baby could get me 75 MPG on the highway.)

But I’m seeing now how much of society is swayed by the thousands of advertisements we see everyday. They’re trying to convince us that if we purchase what we’re told, we’re promised to feel as good as what the airbrushed model’s portrayal of life elicits out of us.

I’ve got news for you, Michael Den Tandt, the consumers who fall prey to the soul-crushing system of capitalism we find ourselves in are not the problem in this equation.

The current economic structure relies on a hypothetical world of infinite growth. On a finite planet such as the one we find ourselves on (resisting urge to make quips about economist’s planetary origins), this kind of thinking falsely assumes the resources we commune with are also infinite.

Large corporations are looking for ways to increase profits. Advertising is this great psychological experiment we’re all subjected to that does exactly that: it’s about the best interests of companies and share-holders. It has nothing to do with what is in the best interests of our children or our children’s children’s children.

Den Tandt’s peice rounds out the emmision statistic by stating that the energy industry itself is responsible for about 25 percent of Canada’s total emissions.

Wait a minute, you’re telling me Tutu should only blame the consumers when the energy sector contributes the same amount of emissions? The logic confounds me.

As a thought experiment, we could go along with pinning equal responsibility on consumers and oil and gas “explorers,” as Den Tandt enthusiastically calls the energy sector. But what happened to the days when our leaders—those involved with monitoring production activity in the vast oilsands—could be looked to for systems and decisions that increased our quality of life instead of detracting from it? One decision made by a CEO or politician will have a lot more sway than my brother buying a new pick-up truck.

Our system is set up to put faith in these leaders in the hopes they have humanities best interests in mind. We see again and again that they don’t.

I grew up in Alberta.

Perhaps I take it for granted, then, that the public is aware of the threats to human and environmental health created by the oilsands. For years, all around me, I saw evidence of the oil industry. I saw real-life experiences of friends and family heading north for two-weeks-on and one-week-off and I heard about the outrageously high living expenses and shady lifestyles of Fort MacMurray. In the media, I saw what the government was willing to let me see.

You can do your own internet search or look here, here or here to learn about the government clamping down on the facts of the oilsands. The public isn’t even given the opportunity to have a look at the entire body of evidence.

What everyone does know is that the oil industry plays a large part in the economy. I understand, as Den Tandt goes on to rant about, that the oilsands put a lot of jobs within the reach of a lot of Canadians. Not to mention the foreign investments in the field.

But why not try something different? Why not try something more sustainable than the finite remnants of fossilized carbon-based organisms transformed into crude bitumen oil after thousands of years of pressure and heat. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out we’re going to run out eventually.

The laws of supply and demand don’t fit in to my personal ideals for life as a human on this planet—I don’t fall under the spell of capitalism so easily—but say we are going to keep playing this economic card until it is worn ragged with (mis)use.

How about our government follows the lead of European nations and begins to aggressively invest in sustainable energy production. If we’re still under the mindset that we need to create jobs (for people to pay off their massive student and credit card debt and the mortgatges of their homes, big enough to supply an individual television room for each member of the family) then we can rebuild our infrastructure with things like geothermal or other forms of energy. Doing so would create an immense amount of jobs.

What I say to you, Den Tandt, is that a survey of the Alberta oilsands would cause emotion to rise in anyone who looks at the facts. Accusing Desmond Tutu of doing the former at the expense of the latter is irresponsible and naive.

I have complete faith the Earth can withstand humanity’s treatment, it’s the organisms living on it, humans included, that will eventually find it inhospitable.

Each and every one of us needs to own up to the responsibility of the mess we’ve created in Northern Alberta. Pointing fingers isn’t going to get us anywhere.

What do you do to make a difference in this world?

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Flickr / Skoll World Forum


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