Tolkien in the tar sands

| December 12, 2012
Photo: Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Change the conversation, support rabble.ca today.

I am reading The Hobbit to my son. Not that I don't trust Peter Jackson to get the story right, but Tolkien's writing really was meant to be read aloud. Try it and you'll see. 

While it is difficult to imagine our Prime Minister reading fantasy novels aloud to his children, I do hope that he and Liberal leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau take in the movie. For if you can look past the trappings of dragons and magical rings, Tolkien has a lot to say about the dilemma that is increasingly at the heart of Canadian politics: what to do with the tar sands. 

This has nothing to do with the fact that tar sands operations have been compared to Mordor. Or that once The Hobbit is in theatres they will no doubt be likened to The Desolation of the Dragon Smaug (as it is called on the map, hand-drawn by Tolkien himself, on the inside cover of my 1966 edition). 

Those images, however powerful, are merely appearances.

At the heart of Tolkien's work is a moral dilemma. Unlike many of those who followed in his literary footsteps, his tale is not about the Hero who takes up a magic sword and strikes down the Evil Dark Lord.

For Tolkien, the evil in Mordor can't be defeated by force of arms or by magic, even if Sauron himself is overthrown. The real battle was inside the central characters as they struggle over what to do with the Ring. This was most clearly articulated by the Elven queen Galadriel,  when Frodo offers to give it to her. She is tempted, but resists:

"In place of the Dark Lord you set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain. Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair."

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. 

"I pass the test," she said. "I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." 

In Tolkien's work, each of the principals -- wizard, warrior, everyman -- both passes and fails the test. That is to say, each of the heroes in the story has their own dark shadow: the part of themselves that is convinced that they can use the power of the One Ring without becoming that which they oppose.  

Gandalf and Saruman. Aragorn and Boromir. Frodo and Gollum.

Gandalf avoids even touching the ring, for fear that once put it on he would never be able to take it off again and stop using its power to "put things to right." His caution stands in sharp contrast to Saruman, a fellow wizard renowned for his cleverness. Saruman argues that since the evil Sauron is too strong to defeat, they should use the Ring as a bargaining chip:

"As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order."

When Gandalf refuses his offer, Saruman locks him in a tower and sends forth an army of orcs to try to take the Ring by force. 

What has any of this to do with the tar sands? 

Fossil fuels present us with a similar dilemma to that of Tolkien’s Ring. Oil, gas and coal are wonderfully useful and have contributed enormously to raising standards of living. Nevertheless, we now know that this power comes at a price: we are adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere at such a rate that we risk destabilizing the web of life at a global level. 

Climate scientists are emphatic that we can't afford to continue burning fossil fuels the way we do today if we want our kids to have a comparable quality of life. Or, for that matter, if we’d like to enjoy the company of most other species.  According to Professor David Keith, formerly of the University of Calgary and now at Harvard:

There are enough fossil fuels beneath our feet to push atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to well over ten times their pre-industrial levels. We may well have enough fossil fuel within the growing reach of our extraction technologies to nudge our planet's climate towards that found on Venus. Not Venus the goddess of love, but Venus the planet, where the atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide and surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead…. Fossil abundance means that low-cost high-carbon fuels such as coal and ultra-heavy oil [like the tar sands] tend to out-compete the lower carbon alternatives and create the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

As the world runs out of conventional oil, we are increasingly turning to more extreme forms of energy like tar sands. They are more expensive and carbon-intensive to produce because it takes a lot more energy to melt the oil out of the tar-like mix of oil, clay and sand than it does to pump out conventional (liquid) oil.

Yet the amount of oil lying under northern Alberta's boreal forest is huge. Canada's tar sands are the third largest proven reserve of oil on the planet. They are also the only one amongst the ten largest reserves that is readily accessible to multinational oil companies like Shell, BP or Exxon-Mobil. These companies, in turn, are fighting hard to delay the shift to renewable energy and thus keep the world addicted to their product.

In this drama, Stephen Harper has taken on the role of Saruman-in-a-sweater-vest. Our Prime Minister is simply too intelligent to not recognize that climate change is a real problem. But rather than deploying his considerable political skills to fight it, his stated ambition is to turn Canada into an "energy superpower" rooted in what he calls the "oil-soaked sands" that underlie the muskeg of northern Alberta.  

His calculation appears to be that since the world will most likely fail to take action to stop global warming, we might as well ramp up tar sands production as quickly as possible to ensure that we are as rich as possible before the consequences of climate change hit home.

This is a plan which Tolkien would likely depict as more clever than wise.

And heaven help anyone who stands in his way of these energy superpower ambitions. Environmental and Aboriginal groups are now labeled as "adversaries" in the government's official Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy.  Cabinet ministers denounce environmentalists as "radicals" and "extremists." The Canada Revenue Agency is being deployed to bully environmental charities in what the Globe and Mail has called a "witch hunt."

This unprecedented assault feels a lot like an army of orcs has been unleashed, and I personally eagerly await the army of angry trees that will come marching to the defence of the environmental movement.

Yet Harper is not alone in his desire to harness the wealth of the oil sands.  Liberal leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau October campaign launch involved flying to Calgary to announce: "It is time to be more honest with ourselves. There is not a country in the world that would find 170 billion barrels of oil and leave it in the ground."

Yet leaving the oil in the ground is precisely what the International Energy Agency (IEA) -- the most sophisticated energy modelers on the planet -- says we need to do.

According to the IEA's most recent World Energy Outlook, we need to leave two thirds of known fossil fuels reserves in the ground if we want to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of global warming.  They have also noted that the demand for expensive, carbon-intensive oil from the Canadian tar sands dries up quickly once we start taking action to stop climate change.

The IEA's number crunchers pegged the level of "climate-safe" tar sands output at about one-third of the projects that are currently in the pipeline. If we simply proceed with the projects that are already fully approved, we would blow past the IEA's "carbon budget" associated with a six degree increase in average global temperatures.

None of this information is particularly new or surprising.

So I was genuinely surprised to see Trudeau double down on his tar sands promotion by going back to Calgary in November to argue that Canada needs vast quantities of foreign investment in the tar sands (including from Chinese state-owned firms) in order to save Canada’s middle class. This was clearly a calculated political gambit to appear even more pro-tar sands than Stephen Harper, who is hesitating to approve the takeover a Canadian tar sands company by a Chinese state-owned firm. But it still surprised me.

My first thought was that anyone who imagines that the Canadian middle class is somehow immune to climate impacts might want to take another look at New York post-hurricane Sandy. But then I was struck by the similarity between Trudeau abandonment of his environmental values in the pursuit of power and Tolkien’s flawed hero Boromir. 

Boromir was a great warrior, who promised to help Frodo destroy the Ring. He had a good heart, but his desire for glory ultimately led him to turn a blind eye to “the evils done by the way”. Compare Trudeau’s attempt to outflank Harper by arguing that no country would leave such wealth in the ground or put limits on foreign investment when it could save the middle class, with Boromir ’s justification for his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo by force: 

“In our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner.” 

The oil industry may well flock to his banner in the Liberal leadership race, but Trudeau would do well to recall that it was the ranger Aragorn (Boromir’s other half, who resists the temptation to try to use the ring) who is ultimately crowned King.

At this point, Tolkien fans may think I’m trying to pull a fast one: opening with The Hobbit and then going on about The Lord of the Rings.

But The Hobbit is Bilbo’s story, and Bilbo stands alone in the long history of Middle Earth as the only person to ever fully possess the Ring and willingly give it up. For in the end, even Frodo couldn’t give up the ring and it was his dark shadow Gollum who completes the quest (although I like to think that it was really Frodo’s mercy in letting Gollum live that ultimately sends the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom).

When it comes to the tar sands, we need to follow Bilbo’s example and leave them in the ground.

Professor Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University is no Galadriel, but he does sum up the Ring-like dilemma of the tar sands well: 

The facts are simple. Our political leaders are lying to us if they aid and abet the expansion of tarsands while promising to take action to prevent the imminent climate catastrophe. If you love this planet and your children, and are humble and objective in considering the findings of science, you have no choice but to battle hard to stop Gateway and other tarsands pipelines. It is time to face up to this challenge with honesty and courage.

I first met Professor Jaccard over a decade ago at an academic conference. He already had a well-earned reputation as a brilliant scholar committed to making his academic work accessible and relevant to policy-makers. He spent years amassing the evidence and making the case to senior decision-makers in government and the private sector for action on climate change. 

Yet in May 2012, not unlike good old Bilbo leaving the comfort of the Shire for his adventure with dwarves and dragons, he found himself standing with other citizens to block a coal train. When asked why he would risk getting arrested, he expressed a very hobbit-like sense of trepidation overcome by resolve.  

“I feel absolutely sick to volunteer for something like this. It’s not how I see myself,” he said, adding that he’d really just like to stay in his office and run computer models on the effectiveness of alternative climate policy packages. “But I feel I am in a world now where there isn't any place for sane analysis." 

I felt the same way when I was arrested at a tar sands protest on Parliament Hill last year (I ended up in a police paddy wagon with one of my former teaching assistants from the course on Energy Policy and the Environment that I teach at the University of Toronto). 

I felt it again while watching scientists march on Parliament Hill to mourn “the Death of Evidence” in July. In October, I couldn’t decide if it was more tragic or comic to see a photo of UBC professor Kathryn Harrison, whose work on comparative climate policy I used in my own Ph.D. dissertation, dressed up as a paper mache tanker at the Defend Our Coast protests against tar sands pipelines in B.C.  “I don’t know what else to do,” she told the journalist covering the story. “I’m resorting to dressing up and acting foolish on the streets.” 

Yet doing what needs to be done, even if it is scary or undignified, is of course what made Bilbo a true hero. 

He wasn’t a great warrior or wizard, and fretted over leaving home without a handkerchief. Yet he won a riddle contest in the dark against Gollum, fought giant spiders to free the dwarves, faced the dragon alone, and then gave away his share of the treasure to try to stop a war. 

So I suspect that if Tolkien were alive today, he’d be cheering for the climate scientists.
Our would-be leaders don’t want to hear what they have to say and our federal government is rapidly destroying its own scientific capacity in the apparent hope that there won’t be anyone left who even tries to put the evidence in front of them.

But sometimes art can take us places that the intellect fears to tread. And Bilbo is my kind of hero.

So I really hope that Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau take their kids to see The Hobbit.

Because right now, the world needs more Bilbos.

Keith Stewart is Climate and Energy Campaign Coordinator for Greenpeace Canada. 

Photo: Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace 

embedded_video