Is Canada Really Tarring Itself?

04/08/2014 05:59 EDT | Updated 06/08/2014 05:59 EDT

In case you missed it the New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Jacques Leslie entitled "Is Canada Tarring Itself?" As a "tar sands" (I grew up using that term and it holds no negative connotation to me) resident I find these hit pieces are fairly predictable; tar sands are gross, cancer, global warming, boreal forest destruction, Dr. O'Connor the oppressed.

I don't think Jacques Leslie is a bad person just because he produces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and various other pollutants in the process of doing his work and making a living. I suspect Leslie and his readers feel their lives on balance are much better off for the work he is doing even though in the process of living he produces pollution.

I'll bet that Leslie is a conscientious polluter. He probably recycles his waste, is careful about his carbon footprint, uses cloth bags and looks for ways of reducing waste and gaining efficiency in his life. He'd make a good Fort McMurray resident if that's the case, because those are all things we do. If Leslie moved here he might have to do something more useful than writing hyperbolic hit pieces, but he'd probably find most people here are cut from the same cloth as he is.

People in my community, who provide energy that the world needs and are one of the most charitable communities per capita in Canada, are also on the cutting edge of producing green technologies that will benefit the world. Technologies like greenhouses designed for northern climates that utilize waste emissions and can grow much of the food a community needs, micro-gasification systems that small communities will be able to use to cost-effectively power themselves from waste emissions, reclamation environmental technology that can return devastated areas to pristine wilderness, aerobic landfill technologies that will allow landfills worldwide to dramatically reduce GHG emissions, carnivals that run off used cooking oil, extracting oil without disturbing boreal forest and increasingly efficient industrial processes. I just attended a regional science fair and you'll be happy to discover the biggest concern of our future scientists and innovators are concerned about up here is the environment.

Admittedly we have some work to do. There are three unexpected cases of bile duct cancer downstream that have no easy explanation and it seems reasonable to investigate industrial pollutants as a possible cause. We produce more CO2 than we'd like, and we are working towards decreasing that amount.

While aboriginal companies do about $1 billion in business locally each year and I would prefer that aboriginal ownership over land be recognized so they can control more of the development and as a corollary control the level of health and environmental monitoring and investigation that will meet their standard as opposed to an imposed government standard.

There's troubling evidence of tailings pond leakage into the Athabasca river and while CAPP spokesperson Mark Cooper says there is no evidence to suggest degradation of water quality it would put me more at ease if he made that statement while drinking a glass of downstream water. Industry has budgeted about $1 billion towards tailings-reducing technology, so at least the trend line is heading the right direction.

While we aren't perfect up here it is hard to take Leslie's sanctimonious judgment seriously. Never mind that the US Military alone produces 10 times more GHG emissions (according to Barry Sanders) than the entire tar sands in the course of producing Empire and about a million times more in depleted uranium, death and drone pollution (I don't have the exact figures in front of me). Never mind that American coal power plants produce 30 times more GHG emissions. Never mind, too, that Los Angeles produces more GHG's and toxins than the tar sands and only seems to be producing movies. It's as if our neighbour, The Hoarder is tripping over his mess to point out that our dirty dishes are bringing down the neighbourhood.

If this world is in crisis and we need to prioritize our GHG emissions, I wonder what work Leslie thinks is the most important for mankind? For example what does he think the 2 - 4 million people who will die premature deaths from cooking smoke this year would prefer; transformers movies, sanctimonious writing, American invasion, or cleaner more efficient energy?

Here's the good news Mr. Leslie. If you stop your military from burning a million barrels a day, if you stop driving your cars, if you stop flying around on important environmental missions, and if you stop using petroleum products then we may have to find a new line of work too.

In the meantime if you are worried about the ethics of our oil production, I'd take a hard look at some of your current suppliers and ask yourself this: Is putting oil products from Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, or Nigeria in your gas tank tomorrow is really that much better for the world than filling your tank with fuel from your friendly, conscientious neighbours to the north? Consider what you are you asking for when you fill up your tank?

Is throwing stones at each other for our "sins" really the way forward? We are all on this spaceship together and maybe instead of tearing each other down we should be building each other up. In grad school I learned that there are two equally legitimate queries when it comes to examining systems; 1) What is going wrong and how do we fix it? and 2) What is going right and how do we leverage it? These two questions are two ways of viewing reality that lead to drastically different results. One leads to problem fixation, the golem effect, increasing entropy, and unintended negative consequences. The other leads to solution orientation, the pygmalion effect, decreasing entropy, and unintended positive consequences.

So in the spirit of appreciation and gratitude I'd like to thank Jacques Leslie for the important work he's doing in this world calling attention to issues like climate change, water shortages, displaced people, and the environment. I am grateful despite the pollution he is creating and wish him the best in continuing his work. I hope that he, in turn, has gratitude for the thousands of men and women in the marketplace that bring him the petroleum products that allow him to do his work. We are kindred spirits in trying to make this world a better place.