Tar sands and restorative justice

Slick Sunset, N 57.14.07 W 111.35.15, Shell Albian Sands, Alberta, Canada, Louis Helbig, with permission
Slick Sunset, N 57.14.07 W 111.35.15, Shell Albian Sands, Alberta, Canada, Louis Helbig, with permission

Louis Helbig‘s talk on his project Beautiful Destruction yesterday afternoon at Edinburgh College of Art brought together some interesting elements: environmental destruction in remote northern Alberta, national economic benefits, the role of the arts, the relevance of this to Scotland, Jim Hansen’s arguments about tipping points in climate change, the need for civic discourse and the uses of restorative justice techniques.

Louis presented on the Alberta Tar Sands highlighting their scale both in terms of environmental and economic impact. The bitumen deposits, that constitute the tar sands, cover a surface area about the size of England. Their industrial development has absorbed about $300 billion investment over the past 15 years from virtually every country in the world with an active oil industry. Although the externalities of their development are largely unaccounted for, Canada has derived a massive economic benefit from the Alberta Tar Sands helping it to ride out the global economic crisis as an oil exporter to the world’s largest consumer, the United States.

Louis articulated his original interest in the Alberta Tar Sands in 2008 coming from his desire to see and record an industrial development that despite its size and evident importance in and influence on Canada’s society, culture and economy was hardly reported on in Canada’s media. The experience of flying, with his partner Kristin Reimer, over the workings was amazing both in its scale and its minutiae. In its detail and its dimension it readily lends itself to artistic interpretation.

Since his initial photography in 2008 (he returned in 2012 to photograph in winter) he has worked to learn about and understand what he photographed. Not only did the Canadian media not pay much attention to the tar sands but it was largely absent from Canadian political discourse. In 2008, already 10 years into the latest phase of development, almost all Canadian environmental NGOs were also absent. He described how what little debate there was until 2011, has been held captive to both regional divisions and parochialism and extreme polarisation. Following the explosion of tar sands as a political issue in the USA around the Keystone XL pipeline debate, the issue has finally found a place in Canada’s media. It is, however, still held captive to a polarisation of debate in Canada between the environmentalists and the industrialists.

Scott Donaldson, Portfolio Manager at Creative Scotland, reminded us that Jim Hansen,  recently retired Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the foremost scientists and more recently activists has specifically highlighted the development of Canada’s Tar Sands as a key indicator. Scientific American said this year,

His acts of civil disobedience started in 2009, and he was first arrested in 2011 for protesting the development of Canada’s tar sands and, especially, the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that would serve to open the spigot for such oil even wider. “To avoid passing tipping points, such as initiation of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, we need to limit the climate forcing severely. It’s still possible to do that, if we phase down carbon emissions rapidly, but that means moving expeditiously to clean energies of the future,” he explains. “Moving to tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet, is a step in exactly the opposite direction, indicating either that governments don’t understand the situation or that they just don’t give a damn.” 23 Jan 2013

Hansen’s argument makes Canada’s tar sands everyone’s business, but the issue of energy and land is one where Canada is only an extreme example.  This point was raised by Gemma Lawrence of Creative Carbon Scotland.  Harry Giles, Environment Officer for Festivals Edinburgh noted that there are a significant number of applications for open-cast coal currently before the Scottish Government, as well as numerous applications for major renewables installations. All of these, for better or for worse, are driven by our addiction to cheap energy, and politicians commitment to “keep the lights on.”

Louis kept emphasising the need for a civic discourse, rather than throwing stones at each other from extreme positions. There was a sense in the room that this was an unusual position for an artist to take. Are we more used to artists aligning themselves with environmental campaigners, than trying to open up a centre ground that enables all parties to engage in the discourse?

Louis kept returning to the experiences of speaking with individuals who worked in the industry, electricians or truck drivers rather than corporate executives, and how they, when faced with an artists’ representation of the beautiful destruction, articulated their own conflicted views.  He feels that the public interest would be much better protected if Canada’s public policy reflected the often conflicted and ambivalent views of those with a direct experience with the development.

Although it wasn’t raised in the formal discussion, the idea of restorative justice was also present, and perhaps needs to be explored. Kristin Reimer, Louis’ partner, is currently in Scotland to research restorative justice programmes in Scottish schools. Restorative justice is broadly speaking an approach that seeks to address the needs of both the victims and the offenders. It provides a space in which offenders, including those who have committed the most serious crimes, can be confronted by their victims. It is not a space of stone-throwing or media manipulation.

Given that we are all implicated in the self-destructive culture of cheap energy (even if energy doesn’t necessarily seem cheap in Scotland at the moment) do we not need the means by which to face each other, and talk about the problems, not as a soft option, but as a way to see that we all benefit economically from cheap energy and we all need to change our ways.

Thanks to Louis Helbig for his additional comments.

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