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Celebrities and the Oilsands: Help or Hindrance?

By now, it’s an almost entirely predictable routine: a celebrity takes a tour of the Alberta oilsands for a day or two and quickly harnesses apocalyptic rhetoric in press conferences to detail the experience. Chagrined industry spokespeople lash out. News coverage dissipates after a few days. Rinse and repeat. Thus far, Neve Campbell, Leonardo DiCaprio, Darren Aronofsky, Desmond Tutu and James Cameron have partaken in the ritual.

Now, at long last, we can add Bill Nye to the already stacked roster, thanks to his recent two-day stint in the area for a climate change documentary he’s working on.

“Producing all this oil that’s producing all this carbon dioxide, that’s not good from a global stand point,” the Science Guy said in an interview with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which was tweeted by the likes of Bill McKibben and 350.org.

Nye’s statement is very true. Alberta’s oilsands represent fossil fuel development on an unprecedented and highly visible scale. Canada won’t meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets as a result of the growing sector (by that year, the oilsands are expected to churn more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually than all the passenger transport in the country).

But do celebrity visits help push the dialogue out of gridlock?

“Where they can often fail is there’s a really naive and limited zero-or-one view of fossil fuels,” says Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and co-director of the University of Alberta’s Petrocultures research cluster. “Celebrities come up, they see the price of extraction, they see the scale, they’re horrified and they say: ‘Tomorrow, let’s stop using them.’ It’s really not a way to generate a narrative that will get us to where we might want to be.”

The West Versus the Rest

It’s a situation severely complicated by the fact Canada is a federation, not a unitary state, with resource development entirely governed by the provinces. Albertan voters are very proud of that latter fact.

Mary Janigan, author of Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark: The West Versus the Rest Since Confederation, notes the prairie provinces weren’t birthed with resource control, resulting in decades of spatting due to perceived “constitutional inequality.”

Alberta finally received ownership in 1930 and fiercely resisted infringements on such rights in the years to follow (think of Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s labelling of the 1973 oil tax as “the most discriminatory action taken by a federal government against a particular province in the entire history of Confederation,” or the backlash to Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift proposal in 2008).

“The people of the West may not remember the history,” Janigan says. “I’m sure a lot don’t. But it’s become part, I would argue, of the identity of provincial pride. You can see people bristling when the idea of a national carbon tax is raised, because the provinces do own their resources and control them. The National Energy Program (NEP) settled that once and for all.”

It’s a backstory celebrities who visit the oilsands don’t tend to take the time to explore. As a result, statements from people like DiCaprio that “we must fight to keep this carbon in the ground” can often be met with hostile headlines like “Back off our oilsands, Leo.” Every attack seems to solidify already polarized positions.

Much-Needed Public Attention

Unfortunately, the visits are often the only way to generate noteworthy dialogue on the matter.

Mark Meister — professor and chair of the department of communication at North Dakota State University and author of “Celebrity Culture and Environment” in The Rutledge Handbook of Environment and Communicationsays celebrity environmentalists can bring much-needed public attention to an issue that politicians and other prominent figures often ignore.

There are three types of celebrity environmentalists, Meister says. There’s the celebrity conservationist, like DiCaprio; the conservationist turned celebrity, like David Suzuki; and celebrity politicians like Al Gore.

Of the three, Meister says he’s partial to the conservationist-turned-celebrity type — a category which Nye falls fairly neatly into as a mechanical engineer and science educator — as they often have a stronger scientific background and therefore more legitimacy to speak on technical issues.

Still, celebrities often oversimplify complex issues. And organizations on the ground like the Pembina Institute and Petrocultures are confronted with the challenge of translating momentum generated by celebrity soundbytes into public pressure for tangible policy outcomes.

Harnessing Celebrity Momentum

Amin Asadollahi, oilsands program director at the Pembina Institute, points to many such policy ideas, including investments in renewable and clean tech sectors, diversification of the economy and incentivizing industry to reduce emissions with carbon pricing. Those alone are intricate subjects often beyond the purview of celebrities.

Szeman is concerned with an even headier set of questions, noting the reduction and eventual elimination of fossil fuels (as G7 countries recently pledged to do by 2100) will necessitate a radical restructuring of how society prioritizes things like mobility, leisure and consumption.

In other words, the transition will require the exploration of completely new narratives about communities and economies, as opposed to lowest-common-denominator conclusions that oil is evil. These ambitions helped inspire “What Comes After Oil?,” a public roundtable hosted in August and organized by Szeman’s Petrocultures research cluster.

Attracting a sold-out crowd of 200 people to the Art Gallery of Alberta, the event featured contributions from academia, industry and government. Many of the exchanges were very fruitful, Szeman says, with thoughtful perspectives expressed by the panel and audience. He chalks such successes up to the way the issue is presented to people.

“When you say to them not ‘should we use oil or shouldn’t we’ — which I think is how celebrities often do it — but say ‘OK we’re an oil society, we’re a petroculture, we’ve made the kind of bad mistake of connecting ourselves to a non-renewable resource that has a significant environment impact’ there’s a kind of discussion that begins to emerge there that I don’t think happens otherwise,” he says.

The Next Steps

It’s a style of diplomacy that’s also been sought by the Alberta government’s recent climate change open houses, with hundreds of citizens showing up to the two events hosted in Calgary and Edmonton (those who weren’t able to make it have been invited to fill out online surveys).

Szeman says such popularity may suggest celebrities have contributed in positive ways despite a lack of nuance, with more citizens paying attention to the issues than ever before. When it comes down to it, celebrity visits are brimming with flaws, but they may be better than nothing at all.

“If we’re gong to make environmentalism — and particularly climate issues — a significant one, celebrities have a vital, important and I would say obligatory role to play,” Meister concludes. “Are we going to be able to depend on our politicians to bring legitimacy and a voice to this issue? I don’t know. Celebrities can grasp a lot of our public attention if the public sphere sees their work and the environment as significant.” 

Image: Bill Nye the Science Guy visits Fort McMurray. Photo by Mike Hudema via Twitter.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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