At the height of the cold war, Krakow was an environmental blight. Convinced that class distinctions would dissolve if the urban intelligentsia and industrial proletariats lived in close proximity, central planners located smokestacks and heavy industry next to apartment buildings and offices. To this day the Polish city has Europe’s third most polluted air, according to EU data.
The Soviet Union and its mid-eighties satellite states didn’t have much in the way of a celebrity culture. Pravda and Tass, da; People and TMZ, nyet. At the time, Neil Young was noodling with synthesizer-driven music and endorsing Ronald Reagan. Thirty years down the road, our National Folkie is condemning the Alberta oil sands as “the largest undertaking of its kind or of any kind on the planet….the greediest, most destructive, and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you’ve ever seen.”
“Canada is trading integrity for money,” Young insisted during his recent Honour the Treaties tour. He went north of Fort MacMurray to see the environmental cost of bitumen extraction up close, before concluding that environmental reclamation is impossible. “It’s like turning the moon into Eden. It’s not going to work,” he added.
Persistent claims of health risks to populations downstream from the oil sands are creating a PR headache for the Harper government and the oil industry alike. But this isn’t like latter-day Krakow, with coal-fired industry in your face and down your lungs. The oil sands are out of sight and out of mind for many non-aboriginal Canadians. In general, the country’s vast expanse allow transnational corporations to develop billion-dollar resource megaprojects far from the nation’s urban centres, which are strung like Christmas lights along the 49th parallel.
As a result, most city dwellers in Toronto, Winnipeg, or Vancouver enjoy all the benefits of the traditional energy sector without seeing, breathing, or drinking the ecological costs. The environmental scar from the oil sands is observable far from space, yet images from it are relatively rare in the Canadian media (an aerial photo by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky shows toxic tailing ponds just yards away from the Athabasca river).
Anyway, back to Neil. Critics say he is using his stardom to leverage hydrocarbon hatin’ into headlines. Yet with a Tory government determined to close all avenues of democratic participation other than our quarterly shuffle to the ballot box, can anyone blame some celebrity for picking up the representative slack, even one whose political stance has been as variable as his musical output?
Speaking of variable music, in December 2013 Stephen Harper sang a cringe-worthy version of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Negev dinner, and repeated the performance this week at an official state dinner in Jerusalem. So on one hand you have a left-wing musician trading on his high profile to assault Canadian resource extraction. On the other hand you have a right-wing politician mining the catalogue of British peaceniks in a bizarro charm offensive. There’s some weird symmetry there.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the prime minstrel to perform “Here Comes the Sun.” Solar energy is approaching cost parity with coal-fired electricity, and our descendents may look back on the 21st century as the last great Gold Rush by the fossil fuelish. In the meantime, Canada may degenerate further into an autocratic petrostate before civilization as a whole is dragged by necessity into the light.
Consider the other big player in the traditional energy sector, Red China. The state broadcaster CCTV recently released a dead-serious list of “unexpected benefits” from the constant blanket of smog in Beijing. First, the smog has brought the people together in their complaints about air quality. Second, it has equalized them as both rich and poor breath the same air. Third, it has made them wittier, through their dissemination of pollution-related jokes.
A print organ of the Chinese communist party “added one more advantage: the smog could bolster China’s military defences by affecting guided missile systems,” noted Jonathan Kaiman in The Guardian Weekly.
Poland long ago passed the smog baton to China. Yet Chinese solar panel production reportedly quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, outpacing world demand. For all its Pythonesque statements about air pollution, the totalitarian regime is literally banking on a solar future, following Germany’s lead. As Neil Young said, there are alternatives to a “dirty future … a door into the sunshine.”
The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 24