The oil stays in the picture

The tar sands, and a war of images

Seen from above, in photographs and films by Edward Burtynsky or Peter Mettler, the Alberta tar sands appear as Earth-scale inkblots, their forests cut clear and soil scraped clean, their ink spilled into smooth tailing ponds carved out in straight lines and graceful curves. They are at once beautiful and terrifying, geometric and enigmatic, lyrical and dreadful. In a word: sublime.

Burtynsky has described his oil photographs as “a bit like a Rorschach test.” Where some see the power of human ingenuity and economic opportunity, others see environmental destruction and exploitation. It’s a sensible explanation, but it also understates the power of these images. Photographs may be open to interpretation, but they also guide it. Oil companies have long known this and have learned that some images and interpretations should simply be avoided. Not surprisingly, many have been reticent to allow photographers to document their work at all. “They couldn’t see an upside to letting me in,” Burtynsky recalls. “They could only see a downside.”

The fact that oil production takes place far from most people’s lived experience has allowed the industry to own the upside, ensuring, as best as public relations people can, that every image will be the right one. Most of us will never travel overseas or offshore, or even to northern Alberta, to trace our energy sources. With few exceptions, then, the images we have come from those with the most to gain. And so even as oil animates headlines—most recently about the fate of the Kinder Morgan pipeline—something of its reality remains hidden away, truly a case of out of sight, out of mind.

How does oil enter our minds? What role do images—with their capacity both to convey ideas quickly and to deliver meaning slowly—have in shaping how we understand the problem of oil power and its environmental consequences? And how do we find a path out of the “age of oil” when so much of our thinking—and our image of the future—has been shaped by the energy source that named it?

In Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, Vancouver-based scholar-activists Matt Hern and Am Johal team up with cartoonist Joe Sacco to tackle such questions in the heart of Canadian oil country. The book’s central argument—and its signal contribution to the ever-expanding literature about climate change and the so-called “Anthropocene”—is that any question of ecology must start with land politics and sovereignty, an idea (discussed recently in the LRC’s pages) developed in rich dialogue with Indigenous thinkers. To balance this overarching claim, Hern and Johal add the equally critical on-the-ground story of those who live and work in the tar sands region. In the face of monumental and abstract problems raised by a warming planet, individual action often seems futile, especially for those of us who experience oil and its effects only in the most remote fashion—by flipping a switch, streaming a show, or filling the tank. What difference does anything we do make when the challenges are so large and seemingly so beyond our control? Part of the power of Hern and Johal’s approach is to trace these challenges to the people who experience them up close, implicitly asking what a few individual experiences can tell those of us who remain far away.

The book frames those experiences within a now-familiar story about the ecological effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels and the rising call to abandon the oil-backed economy. In recent years, a chorus of scholars and activists have rallied around various versions of an anti-development idea proposed again here by Hern and Johal—what Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything (2014), describes as “managed degrowth.” Pushing back against the term “Anthropocene”—useful as it may have been in catalyzing academic and popular responses to the crisis of global warming—­scholars such as Donna Haraway and Jason Moore have also called attention to the fact that this new epochal -cene has been shaped by only certain members of the Anthropos: Western fossil-fuel burning nations and especially their corporations. Meanwhile everyone else—the global south, the island nations, the communities that have resisted the logics of development—will suffer its worst outcomes. As Hern and Johal put it, “the term itself mocks [this] difference.”

Looking beyond the Anthropocene debate, they turn to thinkers such as Alexandre Kojeve via Giorgio Agamben (and later Gilles Deleuze), to ask the most difficultly abstract questions: What does it take to imagine our world otherwise and to constitute new possibilities for living? At its most specific, the book envisions a “sweetness of life” lived beyond work and beyond capitalism; a life of “freedom through equality, through differentiation and complexity, through a relationship with land and other-than-human-beings.”

It’s an appealing idea, but here’s one stumbling block: For people whose livelihood comes from—and has been defined in the image of—an oil-powered world, what does an anti-oil, anti-development agenda offer? To get at this issue, Hern and Johal picked up Sacco and hit the road. Between May 2015 and August 2016, the trio travelled to Fort McMurray, the Athabasca tar sands, and nearby Indigenous communities to take stock of the situation firsthand. In Edmonton and Fort McMurray, they find ethnically and culturally diverse communities of Canadians seeking their own good life in a place with the jobs and salaries to provide it. They spend time with people like Vanessa, a pub waitress who, like most everyone else they meet, is smart enough to understand the tar sands’ critics but needs to make a living too. “Sure I’m worried about climate change,” she explains, but she also needs a job. They meet Reinalie, an activist fighting to ameliorate working conditions for Fort McMurray’s population of (largely Filipina) domestic labourers, but who nonetheless defends the city and its oil economy. “This isn’t a boomtown,” she proclaims, “it’s a hometown.” For these Canadians, the development narrative remains persuasive and its effects material and immediate.

Even ignoring climate change, one need not look far to find cracks in this story. Despite policy initiatives that greatly reduced crime in the region between 2008 and 2015, Fort McMurray continues to fit boomtown stereotypes found similarly in U.S. fracking country. Drug rates and sexual assaults, in particular, well outpace national averages, the latter by about two-and-a-half times—hardly the makings of a good hometown. Those numbers only go up in nearby rural areas, many populated largely by Indigenous communities, a fact that further highlights just who is harmed (and first) by oil-powered industry. When Hern and Johal visit local Lubicon communities, they find families frustrated by the oil companies’ flagrant flaunting of land laws, by lack of government oversight, by decades of pollution and its adverse effects on human and animal health, and by the slow destruction of a whole way of living. The situation appears dire. But they also find the seeds of something else. In the form of renewable power installations, zero-waste living practices, and a worldview based on relations rather than resources, the Lubicon offer a vision of a different future. Paraphrasing writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, authors Hern and Johal describe this as a “political life raft for non-Indigenous folks,” a deliverance that can only work if Indigenous land is returned and their ways of life allowed to endure.

The tension between individual lifestyle choices and the worldwide historical changes that we all face—even if to different degrees and on different time scales—has long defined modern environmentalism. “Think globally, act locally,” as one of the movement’s early mantras maintained. For many critics, the idea has become increasingly quaint. No matter what each of us does, dramatic changes will come and modern Western lifestyles will end. Why bother to act locally if the international community can’t agree to reduce emissions or develop alternatives? If it’s up to national governments to safeguard our future via environmental and energy policy, what’s left for individuals to do anyway? As Vanessa puts it to Hern and Johal about her bar job in Fort McMurray, “how is me working here, or not working here, going to change that?”

Similar questions drive The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet, a graphic novel about individual choice and the ethical imperatives of a warming world. Written by Hugh Goldring and illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, The Beast follows friends Mary, who earns a living in oil advertising (one mock-up evokes the Keystone XL pipeline), and Callum, who makes ends meet as a freelancer while trying to kickstart a career as an ecology-themed artist. Mary’s work vexes Callum, but it also keeps a roof over his head and a pint in one hand, iPhone in the other. They end up in Fort Mac, where Mary goes on assignment hoping to boost an oil company’s image by advertising its land reclamation project, while Callum finds work shooting a photo spread for a mining magazine. They survive the 2016 wildfire that gives the novel its name, but also lose their jobs. Can there be a happy ending on a dying planet?

Produced in collaboration with Patrick McCurdy, a University of Ottawa media and communications scholar, The Beast means to call attention to the struggle over the tar sands’ image. In addition to Mary’s PR assignments, it intersperses a series of satirical oil advertisements: in one a maple tree is tapped for oil, not syrup; another announces, “Plastic. (It’s what’s for dinner).” “Image” is the key word here. The novel isn’t just about visual entertainment or bringing environmental politics to new audiences. It’s also about the unique role images have to play in debates about energy and the environment. As McCurdy rightly puts it in the short introduction, “struggles over the environment, climate change and energy transition are equally struggles for our imagination.”

That struggle points to the importance of Joe Sacco’s contribution to Hern and Johal’s book. In acclaimed cartoons on topics including war, refugees, and poverty, Sacco, much like Art Spiegelman or Marjane Satrapi, has demonstrated the image’s power to narrate and distill complex politics in engaging form. For Sacco, it’s about accessibility and immediacy. The image can draw in readers of all kinds and transport them, much as a film might, to another place and time. Sacco’s comic, “Bitumen or Bust,” attempts to do this for Hern and Johal’s tar sands tale. In ten lean pages, it recounts the journey to Alberta, the lessons learned about life in Fort McMurray, the broad strokes of climate-change criticism, and even the basics of the tar sands extraction process (mix bitumen and hot water, stir, skim, repeat). The comic brings the tar sands and Hern and Johal’s stories about the people who live there to life (while also providing some relief from the political philosophizing).

In one particularly comical frame, the authors practise repeating “oil sands,” a reminder of the political charge even the terms themselves used to (and for some still do) carry. In its most powerful frames, the comic does precisely the work of imagination described by McCurdy. In an image of a community drowning in flood waters—its population struggling to stay afloat on the roof of a sinking car—an inset text box establishes a hypothetical time when “all of Alberta’s oil sands are excavated, processed, and blown out our exhaust pipes.” There’s a whole a cli-fi narrative in this single image.

Images like this one help show the degree to which climate change and its causes are a visual problem. The extraction industry, as Burton’s mock advertisements remind us, is driven by images and hides itself behind them. But with projects operating at the tar sands’ massive scale, and with activists challenging pipelines and bringing visibility to the issues, that image control has its limits. By understanding the worldview that oil companies have put in place so carefully over the last century, and its power to shape our imagination and capture our enthusiasm, we can find new visions and new images to replace that image of oil. But as Hern and Johal show, we don’t have to imagine the world all over again. Models exist, at least while they still do, in Indigenous practices and worldviews.

Rather than treat the Anthropocene’s most at-risk communities only as victims, Hern and Johal, in perhaps the book’s most rewarding move, look to them for ways to replace Western ideas of development with non-Western notions of sustainability. They turn, for instance, to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who in the opening pages describes a conversation with a community elder who dismisses the idea of sustainable development altogether. And they call upon proponents of sumak kawsay, or buen vivir, a Quechua concept that translates loosely as “good (or right) living.” Such ideas offer models for what Hern and Johal, paraphrasing writer Simpson, describe as “respectful relations between humans and ‘animal and plant nations,’ ” relations predicated not on domination and exploitation but on fidelity and generosity. Instead of ever-expanding markets and spiking economic indicators, we’re invited to imagine the “sweetness of life” named in the book’s title: a life that economic development could never buy.

With temperatures soaring, storms raging, glaciers melting, and seas rising; with oil spills and plastic filling our waters and poisoning our food; and with wildfires like “the Beast” that scorched Fort McMurray in 2016 becoming more and more common, global warming foretells hard times to come.  Are we sure economic development is going to protect us—all of us—when the worst arrives? Simpson reminds us that there’s another way. “My ancestors didn’t bank capital…they banked relationships…with the land, with plant nations and animal nations and neighbouring families and neighbouring Indigenous communities. In times of hardship they relied on these relationships.” What will the rest of us rely on?