A Line in the Tar Sands: A Review on Earth First!

By Sasha
Earth First! Newswire
March 3rd, 2015

The Alberta tar sands in Canada may be the largest hydrocarbon resource in the world, as well as the largest single potential source of climate-warming carbon dioxide. If the tar sands are completely exploited for fuel, 240 billion tons of carbon will be added to the atmosphere and global temperatures will rise 0.4°C from this source alone. At the same time, mining, pipelines, and ocean shipping threaten devastation in places stretching from one end of North America to the other.

So it appears that activists may have defeated the Keystone XL (except for the southern part). This is great news, because it puts a dent in the Alberta tar sands. At the same time, there are more pipelines being built out from the tar sands, and other tar sands mining operations are slated to be opened up soon. The Alberta tar sands is probably the worst ongoing industrial site of extraction in the world—it looks like “no mans land” from World War I, as the cover of the book shows, and in some cases, it is a real war zone. The spread of the toxic practice throughout the world is a direct result of the inability of modern society to shift away from fossil fuels—a crisis that comes from the lack of understanding of the advanced stage of the crisis of climate change. For this reason, it is imperative that people arm themselves with the truth, and the new book, A Line in the Tar Sands (PM Press 2014) will help anybody who wants to learn figure out the keys to unlocking the problems of the tar sands and different strategies and tactics activists have used to achieve some degree of success.

The editors Tony Weis, Toban Black, Stephen D’Arcy, and Joshua Kahn Russell, do a great job of intertwining the different narratives of struggle pertaining to the problem in all its magnitude without allowing the work to get bogged down in a pessimism that stifles direct action. With NASA continuing to warn the world of impending doom, drought imperiling lives from Brazil to California, and all prospects looking bleak, A Line in the Tar Sands provides some hope that cultures of resistance, grassroots activism, and conscious militancy will prevail.

According to the introduction, written by the editors, “Renowned US NASA climate scientist James Hansen has calculated that the tar sands contain twice the amount of CO2 emitted by global oil use in our entire history, and concluded that their continuing exploitation would be a “game-over” scenario for climate change.” All authors in A Line in the Tar Sands make it clear that the tar sands are a pivotal position in the fight against climate change. It needs to be shut down. Other crises are, perhaps, overlooked through this issue-specific work, but the essays do call for global solidarity against capitalism, which lies at the root of a collective crisis.

Much of the analysis that takes place in the first part of the book, called “Tar Sands Expansionism,” provides insight into the workings of corporate-led PR attempts to greenwash and compromise. Angela V Carter explains that the influence of petro-capitalism “leads to long-term institutional inertia, which keeps ruling governments focused on privileging and expanding the oil industry above all else.” In further detail, Randolph Haluza-DeLay calls out the Alberta Enterprise Group, among other industry-funded groups, and notes industry tactics of “the mobilization of identity,” and “to project its inevitability (‘there is no alternative’) and to place the entirety of the discussion on technical grounds, thereby displacing wide-reaching moral questions about Indigenous rights, social justice, and the protection of nature with narrowly defined technological and managerial ‘solutions.’” This splicing of identity politics with functionalism promotes blustering nationalistic claims, such as “the ‘ethical’ superiority of Canadian oil (in contrast to tyrannical regimes elsewhere).”

Ryan Katz-Rosene further investigates “how a combination of federal and provincial governments, industry, and high-profile apologists has attempted to construct these narratives by co-opting and discursively reframing environmental concerns… as a form of reactionary environmentalism.” The location of reactionary environmentalism within corporate-dominated sector reveals an important side to the debate over the tar sands occurring between radical and mainstream environmental circles, and the authors stand up for Indigenous rights and solidarity with frontline communities.

As Harjap Grewal notes in his essay on nationalism and the energy industry, reactionary environmentalism often opens up to more problematic narratives of nationalism and power; “With the economic recession and a documented rise in white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations through-out the West, any legitimacy given to these polarizing attitudes is extremely worrying.” Harsha Walia adds that the industry promoting the nationalist discourse also subverts it by exploiting migrant labor. “It is painful,” she writes, “and nothing short of cruel irony, to hear stories of migrant workers who have been displaced from their homelands due to Canadian mining companies or Western imperialist land grabs, and who are now forced to work in extractive industries within Canada that are harmful to them, to the land, and to the surrounding communities.” McDonald Stainsby pus it succinctly: “As social justice and climate activists, we simply must discard the same nationalist sentiments that have brought us the problem in the first place.”

In another important article about the Environmental NGOs’ role in sustaining tar sands, Dave Vasey looks to radical solidarity as a crucial underlying narrative: “Popular movements, such as Occupy and Idle No More, have at times articulated explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial goals and concerns, and they have often prioritized the inclusion of those who are most affected by neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism in both their messaging and decision-making.”

Vasey looks to the Vermont community rights movement as a transferable model, writing that “almost thirty Vermont towns became ‘tar sands–free zones,’ passing resolutions against the transport of tar sands through the state in town-hall meetings that are part of a storied, direct democratic tradition dating back hundreds of years.”

But the important article, “Lessons from Direct Action at the White House to Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline,” written by Russell, Linda Capato, Matt Leonard, and Rae Breaux, indicates that more-privileged forms of activism may not extend as far as necessary to really attack the root of the problem—“It was humbling to learn that in the cases where some activists attempted to celebrate progress, those dealing with the worst impacts of the tar sands sometimes felt like their struggles were being made invisible.” The following article, “Gulf Coast Resistance and the Southern Leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline” by Cherri Foytlin, Yudith Nieto, Kerry Lemon, and Will Wooten, provides a refreshing look at environmental justice campaigns and allyship. They write, “[W]e are hopeful that the efforts of groups like TEJAS will play a key role in bringing about change in our affected communities and the way the nation regulates these capitalistic corporations that only destroy the gifts our Mother Earth has honoured us all with.”

But for environmental justice campaigns to work, according to an article by the Labor Network for Sustainability, workers must unite. “It is time for American labour to walk the walk. The climate crisis is here and now. To continue business as usual in the face of it is like ignoring the advance of an enemy army.” In their article on the labor movement, Greg Albo and Lilian Yap note that the outlook for the future must “insist that a rupture with the existing paradigm of production and work is needed—‘ways of living’ as the early ecology and socialist movements envisioned.”

Winona LaDuke provides another inspirational article, explaining that “When we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. So we must create sustainable energy and food economies for this millennium and for the generations yet to come.” Clayton Thomas-Muller follows LaDuke with a palpable sense of the crisis, “To see the tar sands themselves was devastating; to fly over endless clear-cuts, open pit mines, and smokestacks surrounded by pristine Cree and Dene peoples’ homelands was gut-wrenching.”

Sâkihitowin Awâsis provides an important and timely opportunity to make amends: “Anti-colonial campaigning against tar sands pipelines is very much rooted in Indigenous epistemologies and responsibilities to restore healthy relationships.” For this to take place, a proactive engagement of settler populations is necessary: “It is important to not act defensively when called out for colonial behaviour, whether intentional or not; it is the impacts that count. Anti-colonial efforts cannot try to justify the behaviour or undermine people’s experiences. Instead, look for actions with decolonizing potential.”

There is a lot to work through in A Line in the Tar Sands, but the inclusion of Native voices and anticapitalist prospects provides a breath of fresh air. While the sectarian conflicts on the left and in environmental groups often feel oppressive, leading to a sense of desperation and uselessness, this anthology promotes a return to the grassroots, getting hands dirty, and bringing the power to the power. We do this work because it is liberating, it is envigorating and joyful, and most of all, because we must.

The authors of A Line in the Tar Sands share a vision that will not be realized easily, but if the victories of Rojava, the Greek left, and elsewhere are any indication, a better world is possible.

It is equal parts understanding the problem, combining narratives, and fighting the power.

A Line in the Tar Sands is a comprehensive survey of the herculean grassroots struggle to stop the development of the tar sands, written by the people who are waging this struggle: from indigenous people to landowners in Texas; from activists to academics.

This struggle was started by the indigenous communities of Northeastern Alberta, seeking to protect their environment, health, and sovereignty. It then spread across North America (Turtle Island), and even to Europe, as the magnitude of the plans of the ‘extreme energy’ industry became clear.

With 38 authors, this book is jammed with insight and is generally well-written. The editors have done a good job of keeping the book focused, though inevitably there is some repetition. British readers may be perplexed by the large numbers of unfamiliar place names, acronyms, and technical terms. Maps, tables, and a glossary of terms and acronyms would have been useful.

Two good chapters are contributed by activists from the UK Tar Sands Network and connections made with the anti-fracking movement.

Very much a record of the resistance thus far and a handbook for anti-colonialist, anti-globalist action, this book will be of interest to every activist concerned with climate action or indigenous justice and to anyone wanting to understand the energy battles being waged across North America.

It could also be considered a companion to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (see PN 2576–2577). Both works lay the groundwork for the next steps we must take.

Back to Joshua Kahn’s Author Page | Back to Stephen D’Arcy’s Author Page | Back to Tony Weis’s Author Page | Back to Toban Black’s Author Page | Back to Naomi Klein’s Author Page