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price check: the cost of profit

upgrader at fort mcmurray, alberta, canada.

clouds muted grey.

they thickly curving into cumulus

coughing out of the mouths of upgraders.

they the forgotten particles of tar sands oil

the food of our air.

they the breath of hopelessness

who were never meant to be exhaled.

each steady stream of carbon dioxide released from upgraders— emissions three times greater than conventional oil— form into the season of stormy winter amidst these summer days. each drop of CO2 into our sky seeps into the earth’s atmosphere, into its soil, into the body of plants and creatures, into the body of us. within less than 20 years of tar sands production, these drops of CO2 and other harmful gases have accumulated to a 121 percent increase of green house gas emissions. just as we are part dying star, we are becoming part tar sands oil. isn’t it then important to know who we are becoming?

“corporations have a term called ‘overburden.’ overburden are trees, overburden are streams, rock, soil.
overburden is life, it’s life that gets in the way of money—
there’s a hell-of-a-lot of overburden here, hell-of-a-lot of life.

all of you, all of us are overburden.”
[naomi klein]

tar sands oil is a concoction of sand, clay and bitumen, bitumen being the tarry prized petroleum that oil corporations are after. much of it it hides in alberta, canada underground the boreal forest, the second largest intact ecosystem in our world, where the only two methods of excavating it are mining— clear cutting the forest, hollowing the wetlands and extracting all other “overburden”— or in situ (onsite) drilling. animals like the caribou, which first nation bands of the area hunt for food, are in a 64 percent decline, a consequence of being “overburden.” in order to curb their extinction, alberta has taken to sharp shooting and poison-baiting wolves, the natural predators of caribou, a tactic to mask grim reeper’s oil-soaked hands from public scrutiny. as moon-shaped craters that plummet two thousand feet deep emerge from mining or insitu, the process of “reclamation” follows, where fields of prairie grasslands purposefully replace the once cascading forest— lush green landscapes settle stomachs more than gaping holes do.

“they can’t reclaim the forest because the forest has relationships with the plants and the animals- the interrelationship with other life forms- that have taken thousands of years to build. all they are doing is covering it up: they clear cut and then plant grass.”
[ernie lenie— dene nation]

after the 1.7 million barrels of tar sands oil are unearthed each day, they are transported to upgraders, facilities to separate nonessential materials from bitumen and transform it into less viscous synthetic crude oil so that there is at least a slight possibility that it can be carried through pipelines without heavy pipe corrosion or spills. for every 1 barrel of oil “upgraded,” 2 to 6 barrels of water is necessary for the process, 82 percent of that water stolen from the athabasca river. all but 5 percent of that water becomes waste because it is so irreversibly polluted that it cannot be recycled back into fresh water supplies. the solution posited by these brilliant companies is to create tailing ponds, huge humyn-made pools to store the remnants of toxic sludge like bitumen, ammonia, cyanide and mercury. not only are these tailing ponds death traps for wildlife like birds that quicksand to their death but this water defiled to murky poison leeches into the waterways of indigenous communities living downstream. the outcomes: more uninhabitable waterways for fish, a source of sustenance, and more cases of renal failure, lupus, hyperthyroidism and 30 percent higher cancer rates. the lakeside village of fort chipewyan, for example, has 1,200 residents, of them 100 died due to cancer.

“my neice and i went fishing and we collected 4 big buckets of fish that were fished from our rivers. we opened the buckets and every single fish was infected. before we were able to take our cup and drink straight from our lake but now when we take a dip in the lake, we are kissed by measles- red spots everywhere.”
[nancy canie— grandmother of dene first nation]

justifications are often espoused by the state and oil companies that have their wallets clenched to the billions of oil-rich profit as to why they need to mercilessly drill and mine, why they need to violate the sovereignty of and treaty agreements with first nations, why they need to further endanger ourselves and the planet for oil. their response usually tows the line of “we are addicted to oil,” “the economy needs us;” “don’t you want people to have jobs;” or “energy independence!” and their response is not at all unique because they are definitely not the only companies playing with the lives of people— this is capitalism, it built the game to be played. but when companies, when the state spew such justifications, we need to translate their language that values profit into language that values life. today, i’ve taken the liberty to translate:

extinction of species? that’s just the price we have to pay for profit.

disease-ridden bodies? that’s just the price we have to pay for profit.

uninhabitable earth? that’s just the price we have to pay for profit.

death is just the price we have to pay for profit.

“i’ve seen a tremendous change. we are falling apart. what’s going to happen to us now? we are hurting our children, our grandchildren; our animals can’t even speak for themselves, we have to speak for them. we’re dying, slowly but surely, we’re dying from all this greed, all this pollution. sometimes i feel hopeless. are we not doing enough? what’s stopping us from doing more?”
[nancy canie— grandmother of dene first nation]

[photography by aneeta mitha/ iji photography]

Thanks to the support of readers like you, photographer and writer aneeta mitha traveled 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. she is a brown queer of desi settler diaspora living in oakland where she develops intimacy with her world through meditation, photography and political organizing.

You can see more of aneeta’s stories from Alberta here.

Comments (4)

  • Stephen Malagodi

    What does the word ‘refuge’ mean?

    I take refuge in the Buddha who shows me the way.
    The way through the forest is not the same as the way through the factory.

    I take refuge in the Dharma of wisdom and understanding
    The Dharma is the wisdom of all time. This is our particular time.

    I take refuge in the Sanga, with harmony and peace.
    I wish you well. Cultivate compassion where there is no water or soil. The landscape is a dust bowl. It is a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.

    We’re lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.
    One cannot take refuge and brave the storm at the same time.

  • Shannon

    Aneeta, thanks for these beautiful photographs.
    Stephen, I think of the Refuge as that which enables us to brave the storm. Not a refuge from it, but a refuge squarely within it. Less harbor, more lifeboat.

  • Katie Loncke

    Less harbor, more lifeboat.

    Gonna post that one on my wall! Love it.

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