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How can we shut down the tar sands?

Jesse McLaren and Chris Bruno

March 24, 2013

The tar sands are an environmental disaster that destroy indigenous lands and sovereignty, and undermining the need for green jobs. But uniting indigenous, environmental and labour movements can challenge both the tar sands and the system that produces them.
The Athabasca tar sands lie under 141,000 square kilometers of boreal forests and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil according to the International Energy Agency. Only about 10 per cent of these deposits are economically recoverable, so far. Production of synthetic crude in the tar sands started in 1967 with production of 30,000 barrels per day. Between 2006 and 2010 production increased by almost 50 per cent, rising from 1.1 million barrels per day to 1.6 million barrels per day. To produce each litre of synthetic crude takes two to four litres of water. This polluted water is held behind dams in tailing ponds. In 1997 one company, Suncor, admitted that they were responsible for leaks into the Athabasca River of 1.6 million litres of toxic water per day. By 2020 Suncor and Syncrude's leaking will cause the Athabasca River Delta to contain more than one thousand billion cubic meters of polluted water. The Tar Sands mining pollutes the water with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and nickel.
Karl Marx was a radical ecologist, and while he couldn’t have imagined tar sands in his worst nightmares, Marxism as an analytical method can help explain how we got the tar sands, and how we might get rid of them.
Metabolic rift
A few years ago a tar sands worker was fired for blogging about his living conditions, "All of the Suncor camps in Alberta are extremely substandard. Some have been burned down and forced into renovations; people have gotten sick, people have died. You don't hear about it because Suncor keeps a tight lid on everything and people are afraid of losing their jobs.”
This is a central but hidden contradiction, that the tar sands undermines both nature and workers. It is not just bad policy, and not isolated to the tar sands, but is the foundation upon which capitalism was built.
Humanity and nature have always existed in an inter-dependent relationship. Marx took the concept of metabolism—the chemical reactions within our bodies that allow us to grow and move , and applied it to the relationship between our body and the world around us. He wrote that labour is, first of all, a process between humans and nature, a process by which people, through our own actions, mediate, regulate, and control the metabolism between ourselves and nature.
Capitalism greatly changed the way this interaction occurred, by driving people off the land and into cities to work as labourers. When soil chemists found this interrupted the recycling of nutrients, depleting the soil, Marx incorporated this science into his ecological critique of capitalism, arguing it creates a metabolic rift between humanity and nature: “capitalist production collects the population together in great centres… disturbing the metabolic interaction between humans and the earth, ie it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by people in the form of food and clothing, hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops by simultaneously undermining the original source of all wealth—the soil and the worker”.
Capitalism not only separates humanity from nature in a geographic sense, but gives control of our interaction with nature to profit-driven corporations. This reduces nature, and all we share and create with it, to a commodity. As Marx wrote: “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”
Or as Harper says, “Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it in into synthetic crude is a monumental challenge. It requires vast amounts of capital, Brobdingnagian technology, and an army of skilled workers. In short, it is an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”
The ever increasing exploitation of the tar sands is not driven by overpopulation or overconsumption, but of an economy based on competitive accumulation. Firms are driven to accumulate and invest in order to beat their rivals, giving the system a relentless drive to expand, with no control over what it produces or its impact on people and the planet.
As Marx wrote, capitalism created “more massive and more colossal productive forces than all the preceding generations put together. Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, the capitalist ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake. Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for production’s sake.”
This fanatical expansion has now produced climate change that threatens our survival, and depleted conventional oil  creating a market for tar sands crude.
This is not a consumer habit that can be changed through behavioural change. People’s inability to consume all that capitalism produces triggers economic crisis. Even the destruction of the planet and human society creates new markets, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans there was a market for reconstruction.
Naomi Klein called this "disaster capitalism," a new phase in capitalism. But this is based on the drive to accumulate that has always been at the heart of the system and which has driven capitalism around the world, producing colonialism. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote almost a century ago, “From the outset, only continual expansion into new spheres of production and new countries enables capitalism to exist and develop. But worldwide expansion leads to a clash between capitalism and pre-capitalist forms of society. That means violence, war, revolution: in a world, disaster—the vital element of capitalism from its beginning to its end.”
This is the other major contradiction of the tar sands: it develops and grows based on destruction of indigenous communities, what First Nations groups have called “slow industrial genocide.”
As Eriel Deranger, a band member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), wrote, “Tar sands have been widely recognized as one of the most destructive projects on earth because of the serious impacts on treaty and aboriginal rights, ecological destruction and global green house gas emissions (GHG). THe industrialization of ACFN traditional lands has thrust us to the forefront of the tar sands controversy. Canada and Alberta's elected leaders have been promoting tar sands development on ACFN traditional lands at a pace that appeaers both irresponsible and irreparably destructive...Throughout a vast tract of ACFN's traditional territory the ecology is being completely destroyed in order to extract bitumen.”
This not only threatens indigenous people in the heart of tar sands in Alberta, but also those upon whose lands tar sands refining is built. As Ron Plain, member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, said in the report Risking Ruin by (produced by ACFN and the Indigenous Environmental Network): “Shell’s plant is located directly on my father’s hunting grounds and today, instead of feeding my family these lands kill my community. Shell’s plans to expand bitumen refining in an area already devastated by pollution is effectively a death sentence for our culture, lands and people.”
Corporations and the state
Confronting tar sands and pipelines means confronting the twin structures of capitalism: corporations and the state. As capitalism has developed its colossal productive forces, it has concentrated and centralized them into larger and larger companies, at the same time addicting the economy to oil. Of the 10 richest corporations in the world, 8 are oil companies and 1 is a car company. This concentrated economic power has shaped the world in its image, pushing to underfund public transit, promote planes over trains, rip up bike lanes. In this world, oil consumption is not a personal choice, but a collective requirement.
The concentrated economic power of corporations has become intertwined with the concentrated political power of states. The courts issued an injunction and now CN Rail is suing Ron Plain, for leading blockade of CN Rail as part of Idle No More. Harper is subsidizing tar sands at home, and resource wars abroad: Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.
Parliament has no control over the economic power that drives states, so any party leading the Canadian state will be drawn to support corporations. NDP leader Tom Mulcair has said, “New Democrats support recent proposals to increase west-east pipeline capacity,” calledthe refinery and east-bound pipeline a “common-sense solution.” Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party seems to agree, when she writes, “Canadian crude should be processed and refined in Canada, at least in sufficient amounts for domestic markets, but for export as well. “
Global and local resistance
While tar sands are promoted on basis of jobs, pitting workers against the planet, there are movements against austerity linking labour with climate justice. British workers occupied a wind turbine factory to stop it from being closed, and this has sparked a campaign demanding 1 million climate jobs. Toronto has had its own Good Green Jobs for All initiative. 100,000 marched in Copenhagen and then assembled in 2010 in Cochabamba demanding “system change not climate change.”
A series of strikes have shown ability of workers to shut down the oil economy: French workers shut down oil production, South African workers brought all car production to a halt, 100 million workers in India shut down coal, aviation, and gas stations. Egyptian workers struck at Suez canal, combining political and economic demands, and raising the hope for a different society.
At the same time indigenous communities have been fighting tar sands for years, from Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nation fighting ground zero of tar sands, to the dozens of west coast First Nations who have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration vowing to stop the Northern Gateway pipeline, to the Idle No More movement defending land from Harper’s ecocidal policies.
Climate justice movement
This local and global resistance has come together to spark a broad climate justice movement. On October 22, 5000 people joined a sit-in in Victoria against tar sands, led by Coastal First Nations and with support from labour movement including Dave Coles, head of CEP union representing tar sands workers. As organizer with CAW said, "The on-going risks that these tar sands pipelines and tankers pose aren't worth any price. Tens of thousands of unionized and other jobs depend on healthy river and ocean ecosystems. We will be standing in solidarity with thousands of working people in BC and our First Nations sisters and brothers."
On February 17, tens of thousands protested the Keystone XL pipeline that will take tar sands oil south. A similar campaign, that links indigenous, environmental, and labour organizations against line 9 is starting to develop.
The only “common-sense solution” to climate catastrophe is shutting down all pipelines and all tar sands, which won’t happen through the capitalist market or Parliament—though we should push those inside Parliament to act as a megaphone for the movement outside Parliament. But it could happen by continuing to build solidarity with the indigenous sovereignty movement and building a fighting labour movement that can demand good green jobs for all.
The workers in the tar sands will be important allies in the movement to shut them down. Many of them travel from across Canada to work in Alberta leaving their families and homes for weeks at a time. A climate jobs program would create good paying jobs in building renewable energy, transit, retrofitting buildings and so on in every community.
These movements can begin to challenge corporations/states behind tar sands, driven by the commodification and accumulation at the heart of capitalism. Ultimately getting rid of the system that produces tar sands requires revolutionary transformation to heal the rift between our society and our planet.

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