Rex Murphy: Oil sands are a triumph for the human ‘environment’
Outside Fort McMurray, it is impossible to escape the furor over the Alberta oilsands. Its product is routinely described, lazily and slanderously, as the dirtiest on the planet. The Premier of Ontario, a province that owes much of its prosperity to its huge automobile industry shivers when he looks at Alberta, mutters about the dark forces of the “petro-dollar,” and implied (until he was scolded and half-recanted) that somehow Ontario’s fretful financial state is Alberta’s fault.
It’s almost a fantasy disconnect. Dalton Mcguinty can throw billions at General Motors and urge the feds to do the same, all to save the automobile industry. He ignores that four decades or more of Ontario’s prosperity wasn’t founded on windmills: It was based on gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
Down in the States, Fort MacMurray is the green lobby’s ultimate bogeyman. Environmental groups raise money by attacks on the oilsands. Fort McMurray and the Keystone XL pipeline that would take its bounty south. This rhetoric has even made it into presidential politics. The shameless and high-gloss National Geographic put out a hit-issue deploring the oilsands as the ultimate “polluter.”
Are Canadians falling for this propaganda, too? The bounty of our country has made us complacent, even smug, about the resource extraction that makes it possible. Canada is at the very forefront of the world’s developed nations. Our schools, hospitals, universities, arts and industries are at the very top of the chain — all because we have the energy to drive an economy that can support these great boons.
Yet how easily we bite the hand that feeds us. “Environment” has become a narrow, bitterly focussed word turning exclusively on hurts or despoilations of nature, magnifying the slightest alteration or disturbance of “the natural” as an unspeakable sin.
There is another wider, larger, humane dimension to the environment — larger and more vital than any reference to landscape. That is the human and social element, the business of supplying reasonable support for workers and their families, towns and communities, and ultimately wealth for the entire nation. We owe something, it is true to the rocks and trees. We also owe something to human beings as well.
In my view, this is the first and deepest justification for Fort Mac and the oil industry. Jobs are essential for the human environment — for a woman’s or a man’s sense of self-reliance and independence. By this, I mean the right to be able to obtain what you need for yourself and your family from what you have honestly earned. Being able, because you are employed, to stay off welfare, to turn aside from handouts — this is good for the environment of human dignity.
It mightn’t have the smug appeal of a panda face, and you will not see it on the vivid posters of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, but having a job and earning a living is a great thing. Those who have been out of work know what a cruel “environment” that is — an emotional and psychological assault of frightful power. So we should celebrate some of the contributions that the oil sands have already made to the fundamental human environments of so many Canadians.
I have thought, and thought again, of my own province of Newfoundland, caught in the great calamity of the fisheries’ close-down in the 1990s, and how providential it was that “out West,” an oil economy was booming at the same time. Many Newfoundlanders (and Maritimers) migrated there in a time of real need.
Great social misery was averted because of the oil boom and Newfoundland’s related offshore developments: Thousands of divorces never happened, thousands of families didn’t break up, thousands of men and women didn’t fall into the trap of depression and worse, which so often attends long-term unemployment — because there was a great oil industry that allowed them the wherewithal to feed their families. It is a great story of modern Confederation: How Alberta, in particular, modified and mitigated the misery of Newfoundland — and other places.
I can summarize the entire case very simply. The environment is not just what you see on green posters. It is not just sunsets and tall trees. It is also the people living in it. And people need energy, and people need jobs. Projects such as the oilsands, which supplies both in abundance, should be celebrated for its cutting-edge technological and scientific prowess. It is Canada’s great national project for the 21st century. I look forward to the trip.
Rex Murphy, National Post