Facing off against Big Oil: Why I write

Protesters brave the weather at the Salish Sea Winter gathering on Feb. 22 | Photo by Jennifer Costro

Protesters brave the weather at the Salish Sea Winter gathering on Feb. 22 | Photo by Jennifer Costro

Everyone who thinks seriously about the world’s ecological crisis and in particular the threats posed by climate change must end up asking themselves some variation of these two questions: what if it is too late to avert catastrophic and runaway climate change? And, how can we possibly defeat the forces arrayed against us, starting with increasingly repressive governments and the oil companies, the most powerful and wealthy corporations that have ever existed?

The daunting answer to the first question is that we don’t know if it’s too late. Climate models have consistently underestimated factors that have already begun accelerating global warming, and that’s why normally very staid scientists have increasingly been sounding the alarm and joining calls for action. We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. We have to attempt to prevent the most disastrous scenarios, even as we must accept and prepare to adapt to the disruptions that climate change will inevitably bring.

As for the second question, my answer is invariably tied up with a third question: why write about all this, and why write at all?

I write because I have to. I write because the plunder and greed that surrounds us would be unbearable if I couldn’t at least call it out. I write in hopes of sharing research and investigation that might be useful for others grappling with these issues. I write because it’s a way to contribute something to the battle against the corporate Leviathans of Big Oil. Even if we lose and lose badly, I write in the hope that I’m helping lay down some marker for future generations. The odds may be long and not in our favour, but what choice do we really have? Ultimately, I write about these things so that when my kids are grown-up I can look them in the eye and say we tried.

Forgive this unusually introspective column. I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of journalism in Canada, and frankly about whether I should continue in this line of work. Adversarial, anti-corporate journalism and writing is after all, almost by definition, a precarious, low-paying trade. Luckily, there’s a network of great people across Canada working to strengthen media that allow journalists to really pursue an adversarial approach to vested interests.

So I’ll keep at it, but I do think I’ll change somewhat the focus of my commentaries here. My last column bemoaned the total lack of political leadership in B.C. on the issue of climate change, in the face of a fossil fuel export scramble facilitated by the corporate-friendly governing Liberals. But I realize now that I painted an incomplete picture. Too much griping about inaction at the Legislature, and not enough trumpeting of the remarkable grassroots movements sprouting up around the province.

I could have previewed the Salish Sea Winter gathering, which took place Feb. 21–22. Hosted by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the weekend brought together activists with Indigenous musicians like A Tribe Called Red. I could have written up Artshift, another movement-building event that took place March 1, giving artists the tools to creatively resist fossil fuel export projects.

I could have written about the actions of these inspiring activists, not the inaction of out of touch politicians. I could have and I should have. At this juncture in Canadian history especially, it’s clear that change is not going to be led from legislatures or from Parliament. Change is going to be led by movements with the savvy to build broad coalitions and the sense to remain independent of ossified parties and opportunistic politicians.

To justify this somewhat sweeping assertion, I present you Justin Trudeau: the young and hopeful prime-minister-in-waiting. Criss-crossing the country taking selfies, asking for your email address, and expressing his love of Canada in speeches written by his various Cyrano de Bergeracs, Trudeau presents himself as the only alternative to Stephen Harper. But on a number of key issues, including the tar sands, his policies barely differ from Harper’s.

For example, on a recent trip to Vancouver, Trudeau reiterated his support for the KeystoneXL tar sands pipeline to the United States, asserting that “the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States and elsewhere is not scientific.” James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, would no doubt disagree. After all, Hansen and many other scientists have participated in civil disobedience urging the Obama administration not to approve Keystone. Contrast Trudeau’s absurd remarks with the hundreds of youth who risked arrest outside the White House last weekend to protest the pipeline.

It just so happens that Trudeau’s chief of staff used to be a lobbyist for some of the biggest oil companies in Canada. Hope and change won’t come from following Trudeau and the suits behind him. That’s why I’ll be writing less about the politicians, and more about the activists on the frontlines.