On February 6th and 7th, 2014, McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada is hosting a conference entitled “Petrocultures: Oil, Energy, and Canada’s Future”, which brings together leading members of the fossil fuel industry, consultants, supporters of oil extraction in various forms, as well as critics of fossil fuel extraction. These critics believe that the solutions to the environmental and human crises caused by petrochemicals and their extraction lie in reasoned debate.
The framework of this conference positions support for fossil fuel extraction as one valid opinion among others, reducing massive environmental destruction, widespread death and disease, and the continued advancement of Canada’s colonial project to intellectual concerns, to be balanced against the promise of cheap energy and growth in profits. No matter their personal convictions, participants in such debate legitimate the pro-tar sands, pro-fracking, colonialist position by granting its defenders a speaking platform and a considered response.
To ask whether Canada should or should not engage in fossil fuel extraction is to distract from the vital question of how we (as people living in Canada and as residents of a shared planet) will shut down fossil fuel extraction and the economy it supports as quickly as possible. Petrocultures’ choice of starting point for the conversation is a political choice with important effects.
In solidarity with blockades and lockdowns of pipelines and extractive projects across Turtle Island, we are locking out Petrocultures 2014 and the academic discourses that legitimize and facilitate the continued destruction of the atmosphere and pillaging of the planet.
The structure of the Petrocultures debate is not neutral. It presumes a position of political authority, an ability to influence policy as it relates to labour mobility, free trade, and urban design among other topics. Accordingly, a quick scan of the speakers list reveals that participation is contingent on expertise and public status. Just as the debate structure reduces to an afterthought the lived experiences of people suffering the worst effects of resource extraction, the $150 price of admission serves to exclude any participants who might diverge from the script. Any discussion on how to relate to extractive industries must revolve around the people who will be most directly affected by extreme climate change, not paid experts, policymakers, and ivory tower academics.
To whom does Petrocultures offer a stage? Beyond outright promoters of the tar sands and fracking: a co-founder of ForestEthics, which advocates for “responsible industry”, a co-founder of Équiterre, which urges “responsible consumption”, and the president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which campaigns to achieve “green growth”. The common thread uniting these speakers is a commitment to making moderate adjustments to life under capitalism, adjustments which serve to extend the lifespan of an inherently violent system without abolishing it. Capitalist society is predicated on indefinite growth and extreme inequality. It cannot exist without the continued refinement of techniques of social control or organized violence. Gradual reforms that leave the basic structure in tact, as pursued by environmental NGOs committed to “sustainability” and “a better future”, are not merely inadequate, they act in opposition to our struggles for lives free from domination and for a planet that will continue to sustain life. Neither do demands for a “sustainable” Canadian future, with their presumptions of an ongoing nation-state and ongoing settler presence on Native lands, address the imperative to dismantle the colonial apparatus of this country.
Let us not forget Suzanne Fortier, who would have had the honor of opening proceedings today. While the world’s largest industrial project displaces indigenous communities and raises the incidence of rare and fatal cancers among their people, Fortier has worked tirelessly to give industry in general and the extractive sector in particular greater control over academic research, as president of the granting agency NSERC then as principal of McGill. Her role in cementing the complicity of universities in ongoing colonization and destruction of the earth makes it fitting that she would address Petrocultures, which, like her vaunted corporate partnerships, sees in the catastrophe of the tar sands an opportunity to generate institutional prestige.
It is not impossible that a participant in Petrocultures would utter a challenge to the systemic roots of the building ecological catastrophe. Yet the structure of the conference would have defused that challenge’s radical potential in advance, flattening it into an academic contest of ideas, opinions to be weighed against one another, prompting ever more contemplation and reasoned dialogue. Meanwhile, the pace at which tar sands projects poison the food people eat, contaminate their water supply, and annex unceded indigenous land only accelerates.
A growing scientific consensus confirms what the brutality of a petro-economy makes apparent in a million ways everyday: time has run out. Rather than wait for a political solution that will not come, we want to spread resistance to the tar sands and to all other forms that Canadian capitalism and colonialism take in our communities and daily lives. And we want to interrupt the falsely critical dialogues that legitimize the power of the people who are destroying the earth. We know that today’s action is a small one, that much more is needed. We hope that others will see in our resistance a shared call to action.
February 7, 2014