The Alberta 12-step program

Oil pumping rig

Last Word: The Alberta 12-Step Program
By Marzena Czarnecka

(July/August 2010, Lexpert)

Hi. Gosh, so many of you out there… I’m a little nervous. This is my first time here… thank you. Well, I guess I just have to do it, eh? Here goes: My name is Marzena and I’m… I’m… I’m an Albertan.

Thank you. This is so difficult. Embarrassing. I never thought I’d have to… I mean, you see me on the street, and you’d never know. I don’t look like an oil rig worker. I don’t drive a Lexus/BMW SUV monstrosity or wear cowboy boots (well, not all the time). You might take me for someone from Ontario or Quebec. Maybe even British Columbia. But it’s all veneer—underneath, I carry this terrible secret, this burden.

I’m an Albertan, and I have a problem.

More than a problem. Call a spade a spade: I have the mother of all addictions. Never mind alcohol, nicotine, crack or crystal meth: this one’s much worse. I’m addicted to the black stuff, in all its polluting varieties. If it’s a fossil fuel and it comes out of the ground and wrecks environmental havoc and destruction when used, I use it. I can’t remember ever not using it. I can’t imagine life without it. It keeps me warm on -30 degree nights, it powers my lap top, it gets me to meetings, across oceans… my life revolves around it, and my financial well-being is completely entwined in the arbitrary price slapped on it by the free markets (or the oil-producing cartels, depending on which conspiracy theory I subscribe to at any given moment).

I look at those other people, those lucky Ontarians, British Columbians, Europeans, and I envy them. They don’t have this monkey on their backs. They don’t need this daily, hourly fix that rules over every aspect of my… what? What’s that?

What do you mean, they’re addicted to fossil fuels too? Really? It’s not just an Alberta thing? I thought… are you sure? Because every time the Alberta oilpatch—and its oilsands in particular—hits the headlines, the national and international coverage rather implies that, you know, we’re lowly scum for having the stuff, selling it, using it, and needing it, and they’re high-falutingly pure and above it all, so I naturally thought that they, you know, didn’t. They do?

Give me a moment, will you? I’m having a hard time recapturing my penitent mood. I came here in good faith, ready and willing to abase myself, to bow down to a higher power, to name my problem as the first step in working to solve it… and you’re telling me that all those sanctimonious prigs who… they’re fossilheads too? And they’re tarring me—us—because… why?

Well, now I’m kind of ticked off. I’m not greenwashing myself or this carbon-emitting province. Fossil fuels are dirty and unless we get with a radical programme and clean up our global act, we shall go down in history or what remains of it as the frog that drank up all the water in its pond. But we won’t get with a radical programme—or even a somewhat-unconventional-but-with-a-shot-at-working one—until we manage to discuss environmental issues in a non-polarized fashion… and one that recognizes that it’s not just a case of the bad carbon guys versus the green good guys.

We’re all complicit. I don’t drill for the stuff nor work directly for an oil company myself. But every penny of wealth that flows into this household reeks of fossil fuels. The advertising that keeps the magazines like this one running—if it doesn’t come directly from Oilcos, it comes from their service providers or their consumers. Any law firm with a Calgary office knows what I’m talking about. The best—the only—predictor of a Calgary office’s profitability? Not your key rainmaker, not the efficacy (or not) of a provincial or federal government—it’s the price of crude. (And natural gas. But much less so, because most business and market decisions aren’t as rational as The Economist and its like would like us to believe.)

One of the things that makes engaging in meaningful ecological dialogue with Alberta—and Albertans—difficult for the rest of the country and the rest of the world is that, frankly, we’re less hypocritical than the rest of you. You may be able to distance yourself from the extent of your dependence—and, from its source and production. We can’t. From the CEO of the biggest Oilco to the barrista at the coffeeshop that only flogs organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee, we’re dependent. We’re complicit.

We have a problem. And so do you.

Marzena Czarnecka lives, writes, and pollutes in Calgary. She’s trying to be part of the solution, but man oh man, is she ever a part of the problem too.

Thomson Reuters article record

2012 Confession: I now drive a Toyota Tundra. I cycle on a beautiful cargo bike whenever I can… but I drive a pick up truck. Just so you know.