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Bearing Witness to Tar Sands Resistance: Dispatch #4

capitalism doesn’t make it easy, it makes it almost (or sometimes entirely) impossible to survive. our perfectly flawed system has constructed a persistent pattern: exploitation begets exploitation. as we are exploited by our bosses and by the state, we are also tools for exploitation.

many of the people i’ve met here- in Fort McMurray, in Hardisty, in Amisk, in Edmonton- are, have been or know someone who work in the oil industry. even those who are actively resisting it have family members in it. it’s the biggest, if not the only, industry in these areas. oil jobs are not hard to come by and there are plenty of them that will pay you plenty of money to work there. workers entering into the industry on $70,000 to $100,000 a year, working 7 days on and 7 days off the job, getting comprehensive insurance, so companies don’t have to incur the liability of sickness, injury and death that are all too common in the industry, are just some of its perks. a job like this in an economy such as this would be a catch for most folks.

and it is. people from all over canada and the world come to work these jobs. if you were to ask high school students in western canada what their plans were for after graduation, most of them would answer oil.

as dirty as it is, as earth and soul damaging as it is, as much as we want the tar sands, the keystone xl pipeline and the greater oil industry to be shut down, here’s our reality: the oil industry is what exists and people’s lives are depending on it. it’s not about doing the right thing, it’s about what your options are. this is most people’s best option.

i’ve been sitting here, staring at these words for 2 hours trying to figure out what to write next. what can come to conclude the complicated experiences and intersections of people and our world. what can i possibly give as solutions, as inspiration, as movings to those reading this that would hold both the need to be in solidarity with workers and to be in solidarity with those resisting these industries that harm. none of this is simple.

and maybe that’s my point. if we have an overarching analysis and approach to the resistance against oil, that it’s bad and anything that supports the industry is just as bad, then workers who are forced into the industry will be alienated from the movement.

how then can this movement further facilitate the growth of worker power and resistance so that in their inclusion our movement will only grow wider, stronger and evermore resilient?

On behalf of Buddhist Peace Fellowship and thanks to support from readers like you, photographer and writer aneeta mitha is traveling for nine days to Alberta, Canada to join the indigenous-led Tar Sands Healing Walk, Buddhist-led Compassionate Earth Walk, and other organizing to stop tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

See all of her dispatches here, and all of her Turning Wheel Media posts here.

Want to support more Buddhists participating in the fight against climate change and environmental racism?  Donate to BPF or join us with a year-long membership. Gratitude!

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Comments (2)

  • Jeff

    Well put! The oil industry as a whole has become a cancer on the land, but the average refinery employee is just trying to put bread on the table, not plotting the next dirty fossil fuel extraction or war in the Mideast. When we criticize the rapacious practices of “Big Oil” and push for a transformation of energy policy, workers in the industry may perceive a direct threat to their economic security. Yet I suspect most of these workers are concerned about the environment their children will inherit and realize their employers’ interests do not always coincide with their own, much less the general public’s.

    In fact, consistent with Canada’s long tradition of labor activism, their oil and gas workers union opposes tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline for both for environmental reasons and because it violates First Nations rights: Nonetheless, I’m sure there are many Canadian workers and folks who live along the pipeline route who believe TransCanada’s promise that KXL will strengthen the economy and create jobs.

    aneeta, your dispatch resonated with me because I work in an equally profitable and, paradoxically, harmful industry: health care. What should be a path for Right Livelihood has been twisted into another avenue for avarice by the capitalists that have stolen control of the system. Huge, monopolistic insurance companies, having pocketed exorbitant premiums from those of us lucky enough to have a job, make the final decisions on our health services based on – you guessed it – their bottom line. I’m active in a group advocating a national health program in which all Americans will have health benefits, so you can imagine how health administration workers react when we call for the end of for-profit insurance companies: “Hey, that’s my job you’re talking about!” This, even when their own families would be much better served by affordable, comprehensive medical care (just yesterday, one of my patients who works for and is insured by Blue Shield received a written warning from them that her policy does not cover appropriate testing for her severely high cholesterol).

    Although the majority of employees in our most destructive industries have little in common with their stinking-rich CEOs, there’s no getting around the fact that the process of realigning energy, finance, and health policy toward the public good may well be disruptive to them. Oil workers will have to be retrained for new jobs as clean energy sources are developed. There will be plenty of work for current health industry employees in a new system designed for public health making sure patients to get the care they need rather than denying claims and benefits as they are required to do now.

    As many have suggested on this site, alliances between activists, workers, and community members will be essential if we are to succeed in creating a just, truly democratic society. But in this era of forced austerity, when jobs are scarce and businesses react to efforts to clean up our environment and expand health care by cutting workers’ hours, it’s damned hard to see common goals and strategies, much less build mass movements given how much we are focused on immediate needs.

    Perhaps we engaged Buddhists can help each other in this process by sharing experiences as we try to dialog, create understanding, and organize in resisting climate change and in developing an alternative to the predatory logic of capitalism. aneeta’s reports from the Compassionate Earth Walk have been tremendously insightful. Here in the SF Bay Area, interested Buddhists may wish to join IdleNoMore and in a demonstration at the notoriously dangerous Richmond Chevron refinery on August 3, before which we hope to communicate with United Steelworkers members at the plant about their take on job safety and the environment: Dispatch to follow.

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