Taking the Oilsands Personally

The oil and gas industry pays my bills. Even when my clients aren’t industry and I’m working elsewhere during low-season, oil and gas industry still pays my bills. I live in Alberta. The oil and gas industry pays all our bills in Alberta. Perhaps even in Canada.

I recently watched Rob Stewart’s new film, Revolution. I haven’t seen his first film, Sharkwater, but like everyone else, I’d heard about it. I’ve been to a lot sappy movies but never have I wanted so much to cry in the theatre as while watching Revolution. And it wasn’t because I didn’t know and care about our crumbling environment, it was because of the timeline. In twenty years our oceans will be toast. So much for dying before the worst part. When the film ended, my friend wanted to know more about what she could do to affect a change. This was the failing of the film — it didn’t provide suggestions for how to put off this 20-year death sentence. As well, the film didn’t make the oilsands a personal issue — it was a distant thing that pollutes the environment, and something we’d be better off without.

I routinely work in the oilsands. I have walked portions of the proposed routes of the Keystone, KXL, and Gateway pipelines. I have watched as a portion of the Keystone pipeline was laid in the ground. Have I taken this exploitation personally? Yup. But I also know that we can’t live without it.

I live in Canada, a nation full to the brim with natural resources. We pimp out these natural resources to the highest bidder because, really, what else have we got? We haven’t got a population to exploit for cheap manufacturing. We export all the food we can possibly grow or harvest (being north of the 49th parallel has it’s limitations). What does that leave us with? Lots of water, trees, and oil (and some diamonds for good measure). Our economy is based on the exploitation of these natural resources because that’s what we’ve got. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Okay. So that’s on a broad scale. What about personally? Like my dear friend, I believe most people don’t make the connection between the oilsands and themselves. Everybody thinks it’s about the gas their vehicle needs, or the oil that’s burned for energy. It’s not. It’s way closer to home. How did I make things personal for my friend?  I grabbed the plastic bag lining a bin and said, “This is from the oilsands.” It worked. Our entire society is full of things made from products that come from oil. That computer you’re looking at? That pen you’re using? The water bottle full of spring water? All have plastic components produced from hydrocarbons. A world without plastic would not be the world we are currently living in. Think pre-WWI instead, if you can.

We live with oilsands in our homes: wrapping our food, protecting our kids from the rain, holding the dish soap, playing our music….this list can go on for quite some time.

If we live so intimately with oilsands products, how do we then affect change? Bottomline:  it isn’t what you do, but how you do it.

We all need to eat, heat our homes in the winter, and clothe ourselves. We need an economy and we need raw materials to make things. Until we can find something with which to replace oil, we’re stuck with it. I live in a first-world country; the very act of living adversely impacts our environment. I take this personally. I fully realize I cannot erase my impact. However, I can reduce it. And I can hold myself accountable for choices that are mine to make.

1) I admit the oil and gas industry pays my bills. Where do you work? Even if you don’t work for an oil or gas company, where do your customers get their money? Play a little game of “Six Degrees of Separation” between your paycheque and the oil & gas industry. Somewhere down that line, the money you get to pay your bills comes from oil and gas. Once you see this, you’ll see how closely you rely on that industry to feed your kids. I’ve reduced my consumption not just because it’s better for the environment, but also because industry doesn’t need any more help from me. And when I purchase something, I try to put as many degrees of separation between industry and my purchase (ie, shopping 2nd hand).

2) I try to look beyond the eco-marketing. Next time you’re in a store, don’t look at the products and the label that says their sustainable. Look at the containers holding all those products. They’re all plastic. A great deal of those containers are made from raw materials that come from oil. That hybrid vehicle? Sure it runs on less gas, but it’s still made from non-renewable resources. How about that snazzy *reusable* water bottle? How many are lost each year and need to be replaced? And that Kindle you just bought to replace all your books? You got it.

3) I’ve realized that recycling isn’t the answer; reducing and reusing is better. Recycling takes time, labour, and energy. Recycling plastic (derived from petroleum products) is among the most labour-intensive and costly to recycle. People are being paid to sort and recycle plastics and, as described above, money in Canada comes from our resources. I hate buying disposable items. I try to buy things that I can get some use out of, fix, or reuse in another fashion. The Sally Ann, Value Village, and Goodwill are awesome. Antique stores are even better!

4) It’s very easy to assign blame. I hold myself accountable for my choices and attempt to understand when I can’t take ownership. I can’t stop the oilsands and living without oil-derived products isn’t possible. However, I find myself working within an environmental regulatory framework that holds industry accountable. If industry doesn’t follow these regulations, they are made accountable, legally, fiscally, and usually publicly. Can the same be said of individuals? Is there a cap on how many vehicles an individual can own? A limit on the size of your house and its footprint? How many times you can procreate? Whether or not you can buy a gas lawnmower or an electric one? None of this is regulated, yet all is affecting the environment.

I also cannot blame industry for supplying a demand for oil. It’s very easy to say transfats are to blame for obesity, that guns are to blame for too much death. As individuals, we make a choice to ingest transfats and to use guns. As individuals, we make a choice to purchase products that are produced by the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry wouldn’t be flourishing if there wasn’t a demand. The only difference between the oil and gas industry and prostitution in Canada is that one is legal and regulated and the other isn’t. The demand for each is still there. As an individual, how much do you demand?

I hold myself responsible for living in a country that sells its natural resources as a way to live. I support this, but only to the extent that I need to feed myself and pay my meagre bills. When we choose a resource-based economy instead of currency-based economy, I will be the first in line. Until that time, I’m doing the best with what I’ve got.

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