In late June, a team of RAN staff travelled to Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada to participate in the Tar Sands Healing Walk, which is organized and hosted by members of the local First Nations Communities. Walking amidst the tar sands destruction was a humbling and powerful experience.
This blog post is one of a series, sharing our impressions and reflections.
“For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.'”
– Max Weber
Eyes watering from the polluted air, I walked past a beach of toxic sand alongside a tar sands tailings pond. Cannons blasted several times each minute to warn off birds. Spanning a mile from shore to shore, this watery anti-paradise is visible from space, having been scraped from the surrounding expanse of boreal forest.
Welcome to Syncrude Canada. A billboard with an image of a buffalo welcomes visitors to this signature project of the tar sands, the largest industrial project in human history. This is our generation’s Apollo project, the crowning achievement of the late fossil fuel age, where human ingenuity and ambition is being stretched to the utmost.
“Who oversees this?” I thought to myself. “Are they proud of what they have created?” Ryan Kubik, the chair of the board of Syncrude is in charge here. In all likelihood, he is proud. He is, to use the ersatz dialect of corporate communications, Delivering Value for his Shareholders while Driving Operational Excellence, Engaging Proactively with Stakeholders, and Ensuring a Reliable Supply of Energy for North America. If he had met with us, he would no doubt have emphasized Syncrude’s Commitment to the Highest Standard of Environmental Compliance and their Innovative Post-Mining Reclamation Strategy to Restore Land to Productive Use. Hollow as these words might sound to my ears, he might actually believe them.
I wonder how Ryan could stand amidst this ruined landscape, eyes and lungs burning, and pronounce it to be Good. But in the language of “materiality,” the native tongue of the global managerial and investing world, the tar sands are not just good, they are sensational. To be “material,” something must have the potential to impact the profitability of a company or investment. This language has thousands of words and concepts for things that could lead to a financial gain or loss.
For Syncrude, this language can eloquently describe the difference between the market price of synthetic crude oil and the cost of mining and upgrading it. And as the industry magazine Oil Sands Review reported in March, oil companies have found the financial logic of the tar sands (price of synthetic crude minus the cost of production equals profit for shareholders) to be unassailable, pouring $25 billion into new production capacity last year.
But this language of materiality has many glaring and unforgiveable gaps. It has no words for the cancers appearing in communities downstream from Syncrude on the Athabasca River, no words to describe violations of the rights and sovereignty of First Nations, and no words for the inherent value of healthy ecosystems or the dangers of runaway global climate change.
Nor do analogues exist for these concepts in the “price minus cost equals profit” equation which is Syncrude’s reason for existence. Clean water, biodiversity, a stable climate, and health have no synonyms in the language of those with the power to allocate capital. And in the moral universe of capital in which the right-hand side of this fateful equation matters most, everything else is just a means to the end of maximizing profit. This is the uncomfortable truth hidden in the industry quip that the stench of petroleum fumes coming off tar sands sites is the “smell of money”: The money is real; the land and people who are being consumed in order to produce it are not.
The crimes of the tar sands are numerous: The industry has left deep scars on ecosystems, bodies, human rights, and the atmosphere. And yet these crimes have been perpetrated not by the sudden acts of hardened criminals but by the day-to-day routines of countless workers, executives, investors, and consumers.
The irony of the tar sands is that they have no future on a liveable planet: Further investment in tar sands production is likely to be rendered unprofitable by any global price on carbon sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change.
But the tragedy of the tar sands is that they are a waste: of ambition, imagination, and time. Rather than responding to rising oil prices and an overheating climate by transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based energy system, we have wasted an enormous amount of money, labor, and carbon emissions on the tar sands in a desperate bid to keep the fossil fuel status quo in place for a few more years.
A century ago, sociologist Max Weber warned in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism of the rise of the narrow, profit-seeking value system that has birthed and nurtured Syncrude. This particular worldview sees beauty and truth in spreadsheets but is increasingly blind to the lived, human reality of the world. We have failed to heed Weber’s warning and today, the capital markets and political classes lavish praise and material rewards on men such as those who run Syncrude. We live in Ryan’s world now. Half a century ago, our best and brightest aspired to land on the moon. Today, they wash oil from sand.