10th and 11th July 2016
I now know what it is like to enter a disaster zone. On approach to Fort McMurray, Alberta, roadside signs advise that mental healthcare is available. Roadworks are underway to patch rearranged asphalt on the highway. Blackened sticks line the highway where boreal forests once stood. A roadside sign advertises a Denny’s, but only a pile of white ash exists where a restaurant once stood. The air stinks of what I presume is the stench of melted buildings, melted plastic, blended with some other, undefinable bitter smells. The air feels toxic.
On 3rd May 2016, Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada experienced a catastrophe when a wildfire swept through the town, razing ten percent of the town’s structures and forcing residents to flee. Insured damages are estimated to be the most costly in Canadian history. The firefighters who saved what remains of the city are now grappling with a host of health concerns that mimic those of 9/11 first responders.
I am beset with a confusion of thoughts and emotions in this place. The fire was undoubtedly an abject tragedy, but another layer of desperation taints the gloaming. The streets are lined with buildings that, apart from the stains of smoke, shine with synthetic newness. Whatever authentic history that may exist here is indiscernible, buried under a gleaming, artificial facade. Perfect modern playgrounds are scattered liberally across the town, but they are eerily quiet, empty of the happy chatter and stampede of little feet. I have never seen so many liquor stores. There is at least one on every street, sometimes two. Head shops, strip clubs and adult video stores accent the scene. Desolation is not new to this town. Fort McMurray lost its soul before fire ever torched its landscape. This is ground zero for the mining of the Alberta tar sands.
There are people who are of this place, who have been here since time immemorial. Cree, Chipewyan and Dene-zaa (and recently Metis) settled here thousands of years ago, living off a biological abundance sourced from the majestic Athabasca river, endless square miles of boreal forest and fecund wetlands and fresh, clean air. These First Nations shared beliefs that all natural phenomena are animated, that all living things are equal and that it is the human's responsibility to ensure balance and harmony with nature. Alongside this culture, the natural environment of the Athabasca watershed thrived and flourished for millennia.
Within less than a century, everything they believe in has been ruthlessly destroyed. Forests, redefined as "overburden," have been rendered into matchsticks. The toxic brine of mine tailings are leaching slowly into the Athabasca, turning it into a river of death (they give me bottled water at the front desk of my hotel and warn me not to drink the water). Refineries belch out noxious smoke that saturates everything with the smell of melted plastic and other undefinable bitter smells. The fire is not to blame for the toxic miasma that surrounds the city. Everything the First Nation people value has been rendered into dollars and ashes.
Suncor and Syncrude are the companies actively mining the tar sands. They are making billions of dollars squeezing figurative blood out of stones. In a video presentation given at the Oil Sands Discovery Center, a commentator tells us that "oil means wealth." Apparently, tar sand deposits cover an area the size of the state of Florida. The abject devastation of Fort McMurray is only the beginning of more ecological destruction and "wealth" to come. Suncor and Syncrude are profiting enormously from the devastation, but they do not bear the full blame for this ecological and human disaster. Fort McMurry is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of western civilization's worship of dollars and oil. This is the cost of our cars, our too many clothes that we never wear, our plastic bags, knives, forks, cups and spoons that we carelessly toss away, our HD televisions, iPhones, and all the other things we crave that don't really add up to anything and certainly don't make us healthy or happy.
The fire seems like foreshadowing in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. We are all tragic heroes chasing the false idols of fulfillment that only exacerbate our own demise. Like all tragic heroes, it appears that we will only realize our folly when it is too late, when the trajectory of global climate change is unalterable and Earth becomes a living hell. Perhaps the human religious concept of Hell is, after all, our most apt literary creation. We are all sinners, but many innocents will be joining us in the eternal inferno.
I am fleeing to wilderness today. I feel like a canary being let out of a coal mine. The smell of tar sand, heavy in my hair and on my skin, makes me feel like I have been infused with toxicity. I long to breathe fresh air and take in vistas of unspoiled landscapes, but I will not be able to escape the taint of this experience within myself. I am driving a car across the reality of North America after all, belching out climate changing chemicals as I go. We are all complicit. We are all tainted with the stench of tar sands.