A couple weeks ago I wanted to let my family and friends know what was going on in my life and I tweeted that I was going to be filming with Neil Young and Daryl Hannah in Fort McMurray. I was not prepared for the reaction. My phone was immediately blowing up with media requests to find out what was going on. Reaction from people commenting on social media in the community ranged from concern to rage over how Fort McMurray would be portrayed by these people who have a clear environmental agenda.
I refrained from commenting in the media ahead of time because I wasn't sure how much publicity they wanted and I didn't want to ruin my chances of working with these people. I agreed to an interview with Wallis Snowden at Mix 103.7 after filming was over and she presented a fair and brief synopsis of our interview to the listeners. I'd like to offer my readers a more detailed account of what transpired.
I was contacted a few weeks ago by Neil's production company Shakey Pictures and asked if I would be available to shoot some aerial footage from a helicopter for Neil's documentary. I've done this kind of work in the past and was recommended by the helicopter company. The details of the project were not all that clear, the only thing I knew for sure was that the documentary was about Neil's 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible that he had a team of specialists convert into a cellulosic ethanol burning hybrid dubbed The Lincvolt.
The production company explained that this was a documentary a few years in the making and production had stalled after the film's producer, a long-time friend of Neil's named Larry Johnson, passed away suddenly in 2010. The documentary centers around The Lincvolt from its inception and development to Neil's travels with it across North America promoting the idea that we can be more conscious consumers of energy while still being bad-ass (my words). Filming was originally supposed to take place on Thursday August 28th but Neil stopped and visited his friend Daryl Hannah on the way here and she wanted to join him so they pushed the shoot back a couple days.
I was obviously concerned that this production was going to present an unfair portrait of my community so I wanted to make sure that I was able to provide them with options that presented a more balanced view of the community and the industry. To that end I had well know community cheerleader Theresa Wells and environmentally conscious oil sands development advocate Ken Chapman on standby to be available for interviews if I was able to convince the production team to hear their stories. I also arranged with Joey Hundert the CEO of Sustainival, the world's first green carnival, to accommodate Neil and the production crew should I be able to convince them to film at this carnival powered by used cooking oil. In the end there, while they were polite and curious about this picture of Fort McMurray, it wasn't on the production agenda.
Meeting the production crew at the Chateau Nova I found them all to be friendly and professional people. Ken Chapman happened by and Neil chatted with us around his and Daryl's cars for quite some time. Neil seemed genuinely surprised and impressed with some of the green initiatives happening in the community. He seemed to know little about the oil sands industry, he'd never heard of SAGD for example. His understanding seemed to be that bitumen is mined by digging giant open pits, using tonnes of water, and creating giant tailings ponds. He was unaware of the advances that have been made.
The first song I ever practiced, perfected and played live at Paddy McSwiggins with my garage band was Rockin' In The Free World so I may be a tad biased here but I really liked Neil. Neil introduced me to his 34-year-old son who his wheel chair bound with severe Cerebral Palsy and told me about how he had been given a life expectancy of 16 years. Neil explained how lucky he felt to have been blessed with the resources needed to keep him alive this long and I admired his resolve to keep his son by his side determined to give him the opportunity to experience life to the fullest.
Daryl was a very nice lady, ever since the movie Splash I've thought so. I got the sense that she wasn't all that interested in the hearing a counter narrative or anything that might create cognitive dissonance in her judgement on the oil sands. She asked me about how scary it was shooting film out of a helicopter and asked if I was an adrenaline junkie. While the rest of us were chatting about the community and the oil sands industry she was more interested in picking sweet grass and posting her stickers around. She gave me an encouraging hug after filming and told me I did a great job, which was nice but nobody had actually seen my footage yet. That moment pretty much encapsulated my sense of her, a lady with a huge heart who makes judgements with little information.
The thing I admire most about Neil and Daryl is the fact that they are trying really hard to make a difference in this world. Daryl has been arrested for standing up for what she believes in. She is diligent about practicing what she preaches and lives off the grid generating her own energy from wind and solar and growing her own food. Not many environmentally active starlets have her integrity in this regard.
What Was Filmed
The production company chartered the chopper for a couple hours and asked me to get a list of shots. Mostly I shot the two cars driving around the highway by Syncrude and Suncor. They were essentially interested in shots of Mordor (my words) juxtaposed behind these beautiful cars. They also wanted shots of tailings ponds and industrial plants. We lucked out with a dramatic sky that had a dark rain cloud roll in over top of Syncrude while the nearby boreal forest was bathed in sunlight and blue sky, David Suzuki himself couldn't have asked Gaia for a better shot. The pilot and I also took the liberty of shooting some beautiful river valley, wetland and boreal forest shots while we had free time.
I was told that the previous day was spent with a First Nations Chief getting his story and they were planning on spending the next day with a First Nations Chief as well. The only other thing on their agenda was an interview with Dr. O'Connor in Edmonton to presumably talk about the ill health of First Nations people because of the industry upstream.
What we didn't shoot was as informative about the narrative as what we did shoot. We did not film any reclaimed land. We didn't film any new extraction operations using greener technology. We didn't film any industry experts. We didn't film Neil's diesel burning bus that his crew rode in. We didn't film the environmentally conscious community active in Fort McMurray. That stuff wasn't on the agenda.
All living things consume energy and pollute. Nature is as cruel as it is beautiful. Bacteria and viruses pollute this Earth and for the majority of our history have mercilessly put us in an early grave. Burning wood has improved our lives dramatically by allowing us to ingest more energy at less cost by cooking food and it keeps us warm. Our ability to find and harness energy has caused human life to flourish. Each energy source we innovate is not without it's detriments. Nearly 2 million people die prematurely each year in developing countries from inhaling cooking smoke, what they wouldn't give for the comparatively clean energy of coal generated electricity.
People in developing countries generally care very little about the environmental standards we care about, they are too busy trying to survive to worry about their carbon footprint or how many blooms their community gets. The good news is that the richer a country gets the more environmentally conscious it tends to get and the cleaner and more efficient its energy tends to become. This investment in clean technology requires wealth, and wealth requires energy abundance.
Neil Young himself proves this point in a number of ways. He is able to fight off the polluting secretions invading his sons lungs that would otherwise kill him if not for a fortuitous chain of events starting with the industrial revolution and all the wealth that it brought to the world that allowed a man enough free time to pursue a thing called rock stardom and afford round the clock care for his boy extending his life. His wealth also allowed him to pay a team of engineers and specialists to retrofit a classic car into a technological green marvel. His wealth allows him to pay for the energy expenditure to get cellulosic ethanol shipped from the one plant in the US that makes it to wherever his Lincvolt is. His wealth allows him to traverse the world with his entourage spreading the gospel of green. His wealth affords a helicopter to fly around and film him and that is okay. I promise you I do not mean this facetiously; getting to the cutting edge of cleaner technology creates a lot of pollution...always has. That's why I don't consider it hypocritical of Neil to preach clean energy while creating a bunch of pollution and why I'd like him to grant the rest of us the same consideration. We are conscientious adults with the same goals he has.
Hiroshima Seems Nice
One has to wonder about claims of genocide and holocaust that are thrown about so cavalierly by those with a mission to bring down the oil sands, I wonder what survivors of actual genocide must think. Neil recently stated that Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima (I wonder if he meant Nuked Hiroshima or beautiful reclaimed Hiroshima today) and that Natives are sick and dying because of the oil sands activities. These are serious claims that paint a pretty bleak picture and seem to lack any evidence. One would simply have to look at life expectancy rates before and after the oil sands started developing in this region. Are we to believe that the First Nations people in this region have increased mortality and morbidity rates because of the oil sands development, that over a billion dollars worth of First Nation business per year has caused declining health? Seems to me that is backwards. We could also compare life expectancy in First Nation communities around the oil sands region to those of First Nations people in other less Hiroshima looking parts of Canada.
The other bit of Neil's message I take some umbrage with is his anti-Keystone XL stance. It seems a tad hypocritical to use the guns of government to cut people off from energy they want and force them to use OPEC conflict oil. Nobody is cutting Neil off from all the energy he's using and forcing him to burn bitumen, why would he do that to people who can't afford other sources of energy or who don't want to use bloody OPEC oil? In the same vein I don't want government pointing guns at land owners to force Keystone through their land. I just wish people would learn how to peacefully negotiate without constantly appealing to government to pull out guns on their behalf.
So Neil if you're reading this Keep on Rockin In The Free World! I dig your message of clean energy and I can't wait for affordable cleaner energy, one day if we extract enough oil and generate enough wealth like you we will be able to create a cleaner world and even be able to extend the lives of our sons and daughters and move on to a better energy source. If you would've looked a bit closer at the people in this community developing this resource you'd have found people of kindred spirit, we are concerned about the environment and about the health of those that live around the oil sands...this is where our children live. We want to leave this world a better place like you do and we have the energy to do just that. I challenge you to find a community of oil producers anywhere else in this world that more closely aligns with your values of stewardship and respect for this Earth and it's people. Not only do we not stone people to death, we don't even use plastic grocery bags.