National Geographic, the best friend armchair naturalists ever had, has a huge spread on the Alberta Oil Sands in its current issue.
With the gloss photography for which the Geographic is justly famous, there are horrendous and ugly displays of despoliation â€“ ravaged landscape â€“ horrible sludge and ooze.
Itâ€™s going to be a big â€œhitâ€ against the oil sands project â€“ regardless of whether that was the Geographicâ€™s intention or not. Getting oil out of the ground has never been pretty. Getting anything out of the ground has never been pretty. â€œAn open wound on the fair bosom of mother natureâ€ could be the caption for every single mine that has ever existed on this earth. Getting oil from the oil sands will be â€“ during the process â€“ even more scarifying.
But Iâ€™d like to offer some counter thoughts. If we want to live the way we do in the 21st century, and apparently we do, if we want to have jobs, houses, hospitals, schools, universities, cars, communications, a military, a transportation network – getting stuff out of the ground, and finding energy to run the world, is an absolutely necessary thing.
I dare say some of the great photo spread in the Geographic article came from a helicopter or plane: the photographer didnâ€™t wish himself into the clouds with his high tech cameras: nor did this issue of National Geographic flood North America and the world on the wings of songbirds whistling the Ode to Joy: they probably went by truck and plane, on roads from airports â€“ of concrete, and tar, and crushed gravel — all the elements of which were harvested from ugly mines, or out of deep black sludgy drill wells that people sweated to build, and risked money to start. The printing presses that produced it probably werenâ€™t staffed by baby seals or panda bears joyfully doing the press run in some sweet forest glade far from the dark satanic mills of any cityâ€™s downtown core.
National Geographic didnâ€™t take pictures of rural Nova Scotia or Newfoundland for this spread either: of the tiny towns and out ports that have sent their sons and daughters to Alberta during the last decade â€“ spared them from EI and welfare â€“ kept their families intact and their dignity in place, with an honest dollar for an honest dayâ€™s work. No foldouts, either, of some of the hospitals and schools and roads and research equipment â€“ revenues from the oil sands enabled; nor did or could they take pictures of what Alberta prosperity has meant for this whole country during the decade before the recession, and how it has left the whole country better positioned than most, now that the recession is here.
What comes out of that â€œnecessary uglinessâ€ is whatâ€™s missing â€“ the dignity of the person or family who found a joy; the rescue of one region of the country by the prosperity of another; the smooth running of cities, manufacturing, the building of so many other necessary things. You canâ€™t take a picture of misery that didnâ€™t happen â€“ or of hard times forestalled or mitigated.
The National Geographic itself is built on the energy and minerals that are so â€œuglyâ€ to harvest in the first place.
National Geographicâ€™s spread is simplistic and hypocritical: deplore the source; ignore the benefits. Bask in â€œgreenâ€ applause while riding the great conduits of invention and communication â€œenergyâ€ has made.
For The National, Iâ€™m Rex Murphy.