Alberta Tar Sands Boycott: Feel Good Nonsense

U.S. retailers are being pressured by the international environmental group ForestEthics to boycott fuel produced by the Alberta Tar Sands, due to the severe consequences to the environment. I was born and raised in Alberta, and (full disclosure) my family works in the oilpatch, where they have been developing the tar sands for over 25 years. The tar sands are an environmental catastrophe, producing carbon intensive fuel through an inefficient and toxic manufacturing process, leaving colossal “tailing ponds” that impact the downstream, predominantly aboriginal communities with high cancer rates and other waterborne maladies. However, even given the ugly reality of the tar sands, the boycott currently being undertaken by such consumers as The Gap amounts to no more than feel-good greenwashing for hypocritical consumers of omni-present petrochemicals.

In order for this boycott of the 4 million plus barrel of dirty oil per day to have a meaningful effect, consumers would have to completely abstain from any products from BP, Shell, Sunocor and ExxonMobil. Which is to say, you’d have to stop using any plastic or eating preserved food or driving your car or flying anywhere. Much as we’d like to posture and say there is no need for such drastic measures to obtain the resources that fuel our lives, any intelligent discourse must acknowledge that most every facet of our 21st century lives are made possible due to our recent history of environmentally devastating resource extraction.

It is this reality- our utter dependance on petrochemicals and their derivatives that the boycott fails to address. Even if this boycott is absolutely successful, the United States will still need to consume 20 million barrels of oil per day, not to mention burn a billion tons of mountaintop removed coal per year. Even with the boycott, this required oil will be delivered via pipeline or supertanker from countries like Saudi Arabia, lining the pockets of obscenely wealthy environmental and human rights abusers. That which we don’t get from petro-thugs will be obtained via incredibly risky deep-water drilling, even at a cost of tens of billions to the national economy, millions of lives ruined, and entire ecosystems utterly destroyed.

The tar sands represent an obvious target for these well-meaning environmentalists and companies. If we lived in an ideal world, the environmental catastrophe that they represent would be rightly halted. We do not live in such a world. We live in a world defined by our consumption, a world where those who push our hyperaddiction make the most money of anyone in the world. These people can freely spend billions of dollars that we gave them hand over fist to develop projects like the tar sands or the deepwater horizon. Boycotts like this, even if completely successful, are one hydra head on the ground while a thousand others attack us.

If these environmentalists want to achieve anything more than hypocritical posturing, their boycott must encompass all oil, not just the worst offender they find in their own backyard. Until we as a society cut this crack from our diet, every purchase we make enables the pushers and abusers who are all too willing to destroy the planet for a profit.

I’ve outlined some steps we must take towards this future, lest you think I’m yet another pessimistic nay-sayer.


~ by Andrew on August 30, 2010.

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