Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Big Issues: Canadian Tar Sands


Did you know that over the last two weeks there were 1252 arrests during a sustained, non-violent, civil disobedience sit-in at the Whitehouse?

If you get your news from the mainstream media, you may not even be aware that tens of thousands of concerned people have just finished phase 1 of a protest that surely has ramifications for you and your family. What were they protesting against?

The protest was about the Keystone XL project to build a pipeline to pump crude oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta in Canada to refineries in the US. This might sound like a reasonable idea on the face of it, but according to one of the world's most respected climate scientists this project could be "essentially game over" for the planet.

Why "game over"? Well, a small part of the problem is that producing oil from tar sands is significantly "dirtier" in climate change terms than getting it from "conventional" sources. Another part of the problem is the utter devastation that tar sand mining wreaks on the environment. As Naomi Klein puts it in her typically inspirational TED talk, "this would be an abomination if it emitted not one particle of carbon".

The real reason for Hansen's dire warning though comes straight down to simple supply and demand economics. Climate scientists tell us that we have probably put far more carbon into the atmosphere than is safe for sustained human (and animal/vegetable) flourishing already. We already have more than enough fossil fuel carbon to destroy the biosphere - We don't need to increase supply - we need to reduce demand.

For some reason, we have chosen to leave it to "The Market" to provide a solution to the demand-side problem that our scientists have raised. Unsurprisingly, for the last 30 years or so, "The Market" has failed dismally to reduce demand - Why "unsurprisingly"? Well, how could we expect anything else from a market system that is intimately tuned to increase supply and increase demand. That is what our current system of free market economics has been evolved to do, over hundreds of years - It has been laboratory proven to do exactly that better than any other system. Let's face it - we picked completely the wrong tool for the job - The Market is not to blame - it worked perfectly. Unfortunately for the planet though, fossil fuel production and use has skyrocketed.

Thankfully, there have recently been a series of failures in market forces that have caused oil prices to increase significantly. These increasing prices are slowly lowering demand for fossil fuels and are making alternatives more appealing.

By further opening up the Canadian tar sands however, we are giving "The Market" access to a virtually unlimited supply of "affordable" oil. This undoes any improvements on the demand side of the equation - allowing consumers to happily continue putting the foot on the carbon accelerator when we should be slamming on the brake - It is time to ram the carbon juggernaut into reverse people!

This is why so many thousands of people participated in the largest civil disobedience programme the US has seen for a long time, and my most heartfelt thanks go out to all those principled and courageous people. Good luck with phase 2 of the protests

So, tying quickly back to my opening point, was anything that I've said above news to you? Do you think the protesters were treated fairly by the mainstream international media?

Tying that into the theme of this blog, does the mainstream media have an obligation to report on issues like this that affect Sustainable Human Flourishing?

It seems clear to me that we have a serious problem when they don't. I personally believe that the media has a vital role and very serious obligation in the sphere of sustainable human flourishing, so you can bet that I'll be revisiting that idea again soon.


  1. Hard to know what to do, realistically.

  2. I agree Stuart - it is tough alright.

    Thanks for the link mate - Nice piece that touches on some important points that I'm working on for future posts - the ideas of powerlessness, individual responsibility, personal sacrifice, collective action, regulation, tax, fairness, economics,...