Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Toxic Fuel (From Pentacle Issue 31, Spring 2010)

In the forest of northern Canada, in the tales of the Woodland Cree, the Trickster often takes the form of a Raven. In one tale, common to many tribes, he banishes the primordial darkness by stealing the Moon. Finding a cabin in the woods in which the Moon is imprisoned, he transforms into a pine needle and is drunk by the lady of the house whilst she is collecting water. Reborn as a baby he demands to play with the Moon. Then, seizing his opportunity, he escapes through the smoke hole. Breaking up the Moon he forms the Sun and the Stars. The darkness is banished but the Moon has left its mark on the Raven, and his feathers, formerly as white as the snow, are now burnt black like the night.

Our local Co-op is traditional supermarket shopping. The checkout staff chat away happily to themselves whilst firing your shopping down the conveyer belt. They appear to know every customer in the queue except you and discuss in intimate details their numerous relatives and mutual friends whilst you are waiting to pay. Then when that’s done there is none of this “would you like any help with your packing” nonsense. Instead the lever is pulled and your groceries are squashed into a corner so they can serve the next person.

However over the last few years there have been subtle changes in the store. First it was the Fairtrade chocolate, then Fairtrade wine, then Fairtrade and organic coffee, then reusable shopping bags, then cucumber without any plastic wrapping and so on. Even the café, previously a place that served chips and beans only, reopened as the Fairtrade Espresso Bar. Gradually I started to wonder if by any chance the Co-op, cheap place to do your shopping, might actually be the same as the Co-op, ethical place to stick your money.

They are indeed one and the same and as well as selling you stuff and taking your money, they’ll also bury you when you’ve shuffled off to the Summerlands. They also turn their hand to campaigning every now and again, and whilst it may seem a long way from the baked bean aisle to the woodlands of the Cree, the Co-op is now helping a First Nation people in a fight to save their environment and ours.

In one corner we have a medley of international oil companies including Shell, Exxon, Total and BP, whilst up against them we have a tribe of about 900 people up in Alberta, Canada. Not so much David taking on Goliath so much as a Smart car taking on a 400 ton dumper truck.

The issue in hand is the exploitation of tar sands, a dirty form of oil that Canada hopes to exploit and sell to its southern rival to help fuel their addiction to oversized cars.

Tar sands contain bitumen, the sticky black stuff that is used to make asphalt. If you dig them out of the ground in industrial quantities and boil them for long enough you can get oil, the sticky black stuff that is used to make money.

The effect on the wildlife can be imagined. Trees are clear cut, the soil is stripped away and vast machines carve our great scars in the ground. Roads carved through the virgin forest stop the caribou from migrating. Tailing ponds of toxic sludge trap migrating birds, and like the raven in the tale above, turn them black - more than 1600 ducks in one tank alone.

For us, separated from our pagan ancestors by hundreds of years and living in a post-industrial landscape that few of them would recognise, a few acres of struggling trees is a forest. For the Woodland Cree, a forest is boreal woodland stretching from coast to coast across a continent broken only by wild rivers. This is the same forest in which their ancestors first told the tales of the Raven and in which the Trickster, in his many guises, still roams.

It’s no surprise then that the Cree aren’t planning to taking this lying down. One nation whose ancestral lands are threatened has led the way. In May 2008 the Beaver Lake Cree Nation released their Kétuskéno Declaration, putting down a line in the oily sand.

The declaration begins “Let it be known that we, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, are the keepers of the lands”. It continues “We keep this land in honour of our ancestors and on behalf of our future generations, so that as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows, we can continue our traditional way of life. This is the land where we and our future generations will practise our spiritual ways and exercise our rational rights”. You don’t have to have grown up watching cheap westerns to know that that’s fighting talk.

However it‘s not just the Cree Nations who should be worrying about tar sands. Climate Change threatens us all and we need less oil, not more. The extraction of oil from tar sands is one of the most energy intensive industries around. To extract two units of energy from the ground you need to use one unit of energy to boil out the bitumen. This is three times as much as you use to drill for oil the conventional way. It’s probably better for the environment to drive a Land Rover on ordinary petrol than a Mondeo on fuel made from tar sands.

Such is the energy demands of tar sands extraction that there has even been talk of building nuclear reactors up there just to boil the oil out. That’s probably not going to happen, but what is happening is that natural gas, one of the cleanest of fossil fuels, is being piped in to be used to extract one of the dirtiest. If extraction gets into full swing the amount of gas they’ll need would be enough to heat all of Canada’s 12 million homes.

I could go on, but you’ve probably had enough doom and gloom. Hopefully though what separates readers of Pentacle from readers of Fairy and Fetish or other pagan publications is that you want to actually do something about it.

There’s plenty of reasons to support this campaign. Preservation of a real wilderness is one. Helping to fight Climate Change by stopping one of the dirtiest of dirty fuels is certainly another. Then there’s solidarity with a pagan people who genuinely want to be caretakers of the earth. But there is another reason to back this campaign, one that I think trumps all those.

We can win this one.

Tar sands are not having a good year. In January Shell announced it would slow development after a shareholder revolt. Then California, home to more gas guzzlers than any other state and a key market for the oil, announced a series of measures aimed at promoting low carbon fuels. In February BP shareholders launched their own revolt and shortly afterwards Whole Foods, a major US organic food chain, announced it would be boycotting any fuel associated with tar sands.

The campaign against tar sands reads like a gazetteer of environmental groups. Greenpeace Canada have been digger diving at the extraction site, which must be really good fun when the diggers are bigger than your house. Friends of the Earth in this country have been campaigning too. WWF (the panda people, not the wrestlers) have produced a feature length film called Dirty Oil dishing the dirt. And so on. If you want to help, you’re in good company.

Those shareholder resolutions for the BP and Shell Annual General Meetings will be being voted on pretty much as this magazine comes out. If you’re in a pension fund, and you’re quick, you can ask your pension fund manager to vote against tar sands. Money talks, and the £40 billion invested in these companies gives the pension fund managers loud voices.

The Beaver Lake Cree meanwhile are putting their trust in something with the dull sounding name of Treaty Number Six. It was signed in 1876 by someone with the anything-but-dull name of Chief Ko-Pah-A-Wa-Ke-Mum. In return for giving away vast tracts of their land to good old Queen Victoria, the Cree kept the rights to hunt, fish and gather plants and medicines, undisturbed by the Crown.

This is where the Co-op comes in. A fighting fund called The Raven Trust has been set up and the Co-op has dropped a fair chunk of its money into the kitty. This has allowed the Beaver Lake Cree to hire a hot shot lawyer specialising in First Nation cases to fight their case.

Lets wish him all the best and hope he has the cunning of the Raven.

(Pentacle is now in the shops.)