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If F. W. de Klerk's apartheid comparison to fossil fuels is OK, why is David Suzuki's slavery analogy an outrage?

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A statue featuring Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in Cape Town, South Africa.

During a speech in Calgary last week, the last white president of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, suggested that the challenges faced by Alberta in the waning days of the petroleum industry may not be dissimilar from those facing his country in the last days of apartheid. His comments seem to have prompted barely a ripple among habitual defenders of the fossil fuel industry in Alberta's oilpatch.

In one way, this is not so odd. After all, de Klerk was not suggesting the oil industry and the racist apartheid regime are analogous, merely that the rapid decline of any economic and political system, no matter how unsustainable in the long run, gives rise to the need for honesty and deep introspection to manage a successful transition.

Perhaps he was planning to suggest such introspection and honesty is missing in Alberta's oilpatch. I can't tell you, because while Postmedia's Calgary websites published a safe advancer story based on an interview in which de Klerk tipped his hand to what he planned to say, they didn't bother to cover the actual speech to the Petroleum Club.   

Needless to say, this is not exactly best journalistic practice. But it's what we have to work with, and the lack of hostile public reaction to de Klerk's scene-setting the day before his speech is illuminating.

This is because the apparent lack of outrage or even raised eyebrows about de Klerk's comparison with apartheid begs this interesting question: If such an analogy by a former South African president is easy to understand and non-controversial, why does a very similar analogy by a well-known environmentalist prompt rabid fury by Alberta’s oilpatch defenders and their political enablers?

I speak, of course, of the repeated, often nearly hysterical attacks on the University of Alberta and honorary degree recipient David Suzuki by Opposition Leader Jason Kenney and his chorus of supporters, in which they screech about how Suzuki has compared the activity of the oil industry to the slave trade in the 19th century United States and express outrage that such a suggestion could be made.

In a typical example condemning the Edmonton university for granting the honorary degree, Kenney offhandedly described Suzuki as "a man who says that Alberta’s oilsands are the moral equivalent of slavery."

This is not a fair description of Suzuki's argument, of course, but then accuracy in polemics is not Kenney's long suit. He goes on in the video to falsely imply that the university will try to make up any shortfall in donations as a result of the honorary degree from public funds, co-ordinating his talking points with a similar misleading claim made by an agitator for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Suzuki, a respected environmentalist and scientist who received the honour from the U of A on June 7, has in the past made essentially the same argument as the former South African president.

That is, that further fossil fuel development in a warming world is economically unsustainable and claims that we must stick with fossil fuels or risk economic collapse are false. This, he has argued, is no different from the claims made by slave owners in the American South in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War. The reality, now as then, is that positive change is possible and Alberta is going to face change whether it likes it or not.

Responding to an attack on him by then Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall in 2015, what Suzuki actually said was that Wall's argument "sounds very much to me like Southern states argued in the 19th century, that to eliminate slavery would destroy their economy."

He asked: "Who would say today that the economy should have come before slavery?"

Later, in an email to Maclean's Magazine, Dr. Suzuki added to his remarks, saying, "Southern states argued that abolishing slavery would destroy their economy and that is like the fossil-fuel industry arguing against action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (claiming it would) destroy the economy... People caught in working for the fossil-fuel industry will have to make a transition. They are not the target of my ire."

So while de Klerk's analogy is apparently non-controversial and easy for the oilpatch to understand, when Suzuki says essentially the same thing it's the cause of outrage. It behooves us to think about why this might be.

Given Suzuki's well-known views about oilsands development, I suppose a certain amount of casual misrepresentation of his arguments is inevitable, given the state of public discourse in Canada nowadays.

I have to say I find the comparisons used by de Klerk in last week's speech, by Suzuki in Maclean's, and the 2012 book by Alberta journalist Andrew Nikiforuk that popularized the slavery argument are a little strained, and not particularly helpful given the kind of reaction they risk prompting -- at least if the speaker lacks the correct political and colonial credentials.

But if there is a useful lesson from this it is to distrust social media demagogues who make claims about their opponents without providing footnotes or links.

The F. W. in de Klerk stands for Frederik Willem, in case you wondered. Whether or not he thought apartheid was immoral, de Klerk had recognized by the early 1990s that the world was changing and, one way or another, apartheid was not sustainable. He chose the wiser path, for which he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, who became the country's first black head of state in 1994 after its first democratic election.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: flickr/aprillynn77

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