Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Neil Young’s Hiroshima – Exhibit #10 in the Drama Queen Files

Rockstar’s rhetoric about Canada’s oil sands is intemperate, offensive, and ill-informed.

When an argument is intellectually shallow, its proponents reach for emotionalism and over-the-top language. The latest embarrassing example comes from Canadian-born musician Neil Young.

Although he lives on a 1,500-acre estate in California, Young has spent the past week on an anti-oil sands music tour north of the border. The stated goal of these benefit concerts is to raise money for a legal challenge to the expansion of the oil sands.

Ostensibly, Young is concerned about the health and treaty rights of First Nation individuals who live near Fort McMurray, a community of roughly 65,000 in the northern part of the Canadian province of Alberta. But the real target, the “elephant in the room” as Young himself describes it, is human-caused global warming.

When someone says Fort McMurray is “up North,” they aren’t kidding. Alberta’s two main cities are Calgary and Edmonton. Both are located in the southern half of that province. Fort McMurray is a 4½-hour drive beyond Edmonton, in a climate zone just short of subarctic.

fort_mac

click to enlarge; Google maps screencap

Fort Mac is so remote that, earlier this month, Canada Post announced that all parcels sent there will incur a $5 surcharge (in this sprawling, sparsely populated country, fuel surcharges are routinely added by the post office after the clerk quotes you the standard shipping price).

For my entire life, Fort McMurray has been an almost mythical place where young, working class males – especially those with a trade – go to work for a few years in order to amass a financial nest egg. It has also been a magnet for unemployed family men from poorer parts of the country – resource-based jobs in remote locations have always paid handsomely.

But Neil Young, the 68-year-old rock star who reportedly became a millionaire by the age of 24, appears to have little sympathy for working stiffs. Last September, at an anti-Keystone pipeline media event in Washington, here’s what he said:

The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying. The fuels all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this. [bold added]

The cancer allegations are old (highly-disputed) news. In late 2009, I wrote a blog post titled Canada’s Tar Sands & Cancer Rates, about a doctor who claimed to have found higher-than-usual cancer rates but then refused to share his data with officials from the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada. A subsequent investigation concluded that many of his public statements were “inaccurate” and “untruthful.”

There are many reasons why people living in small, remote communities might be less healthy than average Canadians. As far as I know, we’re a long way from establishing that the highly-regulated oil industry is the primary villain.

But it’s Young’s use of the words “Hiroshima” and “wasteland” that have caused the most offense. On Twitter, people who live in Fort Mac have been posting ironically bucolic photographs accompanied by the MyHiroshima hashtag. You can see some of those photos here and here.

Rex Murphy, a newspaper columnist, spoke for many Canadians when he wrote recently:

we can forgive minor sins in any propaganda war — and there is a propaganda war circling the oil sands. But to offer an equivalence…with the horror, mass obliteration and deaths of Hiroshima, goes so far outside all boundaries of good taste, truth, judgment and proportion as to be unfathomably irresponsible.

Presented with an opportunity to amend, modify, or soften his Hiroshima statement, Young declined. Indeed, according to press accounts, he’s been employing all manner of intemperate language:

  • We are killing these people…And it will be the result not of a slow thing, but a fast, horrific thing…”
  • If the treaties are broken, all hell will break loose, and the blood will be on modern Canada’s hands…”
  • “It is like a war zone, a disaster area from war…”
  • “It’s truly a disaster.”
  • Alberta could end up looking “like the moon
  • “It is the most devastating thing you will ever see. It is the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you will ever see…”

As Andrea Jennetta has observed, “industrial operations aren’t pretty.” Mining is often aesthetically ugly. But since, as she says, almost “everything we use in modern life…requires the extensive mining of raw materials,” rock star Young needs to get a grip.

His private jets, touring busesmotorbikes, and model trains wouldn’t exist without the people who work for their pay cheques in places like Fort Mac.

When he’s prepared to banish all of those luxuries from his own life, perhaps his hyperbole won’t ring so hollow.

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links to some surprisingly grown-up mainstream media commentary/coverage:

Neil Young chooses his own comfort over his convictions
More oil-sands facts, less rock-star rhetoric
Neil Young’s oilsands stance is unfair
Rocker Neil Young’s oilsands comments missing the facts: Saskatchewan premier
Neil Young and his fellow oil sands critics have yet to propose a single credible alternative
The oil sands are complicated, like Neil Young himself
Neil Young’s misguided assault on Alberta oil sands doing a disservice to natives
Canadian rocker Neil Young’s anti-oilsands tour shows energy industry needs to add star power

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see also

The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #9 – Rich Guy Rubbish
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #8 –Climate Holocaust
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #7 –The Coming Hellhole
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #6 – Carbon Dioxide, Superstition & Protecting the Oceans
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #5 – Arctic Hunters ‘Gasping for Life’
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #4 – Earth Day, 1970
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #3 – The ‘Outraged’ Sierra Club
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #2 – The ‘Carbon Bomb’ Pipeline
The Drama Queen Files – Exhibit #1 – Greenpeace’s ‘Battle for Britain’

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