Like many, I have watched incredulous as an entire city has been painfully evacuated, the people sitting in traffic jams with the inferno licking against their windshields.
For some, there is an “irony” in the fact that Fort McMurray is a tar-sands city, built on the proceeds of an environmentally ruinous extraction process to supply an environmentally catastrophic fossil fuel economy, the side effect of which is climate change and the prolonged hot and dry periods which have been a contributory factor in the wildfires which are currently threatening to raise the same Canadian city to the ground.
Despite the appeals of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with the increasing frequency of such extreme events – wildfires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc. – the instinct to link them individually to the effects of climate change and the actions of a greedy energy sector is difficult to suppress. Indeed, some have gone further, suggesting the Fort McMurray wildfires are “karma”.
Siding with Trudeau, one Canadian editorial argued that “linking climate change to specific natural events is politically dangerous and scientifically unsound”. However, it is the very concept of the wildfire as a “natural event” that I wish to challenge here.
As has been vociferously contended by political ecologists over recent decades, such a ring-fencing of science and ‘the natural’ from ‘the social’ fails to acknowledge the significance of relations of political and economic power which both mediate and are mediated by transformations of ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ phenomena.
Oil is the single greatest commodity on the planet. The act of commodification entails the articulation of labour, science and technology in order to appropriate and transform nature – such as the oil contained within the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta – into energy and money. This process entails not only the ‘capitalisation’ of the resource itself, however, but also those material and social things incidental to it’s abstraction.
Thus, embodied within the barrels of crude oil, the energy it generates, and our daily practices as consumers, are the felled trees of the Canadian Boreal forest and the clean waters which once flowed among them. Similarly absorbed are the contingent relationships between those material elements of nature and humans; the health and wellbeing of those for whom nature holds concrete ‘use values’ as opposed to an abstract ‘exchange value.’
These natural and social ‘externalities’ of commodification are, furthermore, encapsulated within the accumulated wealth and power of the corporate executives of the fossil fuel industry. The risks, meanwhile, are faced disproportionately by the rest of society, and perhaps most acutely by those local to the point of extraction. Not only are local communities expropriated of their local resources, they are left with few options other than to surrender their labour to the global economy.
In respect to fossil fuels, however, the risks travel beyond those in the vicinity to the global level – to those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change across the world. At the end of a vicious and complex feedback loop, the people of northern Alberta have now borne witness to the manifestation of these threats from both scales, from the local to the global and back again.
Rising atmospheric CO2 levels bear the mark of the wealthy oil company executive, a figure whose existence embodies both the appropriated resources and their loss to local people. This inequity is given further expression within global climatological shifts which are an increasingly evident factor in catastrophic events such as the Fort McMurray wildfire. It is embodied by the strongest El Nino weather phenomenon on record, by this year’s unseasonably warm Albertan winter, the absence of precipitation (it’s presence elsewhere), and the accumulation of a one-metre-deep layer of tinder-dry leaf litter in the remaining forest around the provincial city.
Meanwhile, these physical feedbacks are further exacerbated by recurring regional fiscal crises stemming from the boom and bust nature of the oil markets in which they are heavily invested – an inherent contradiction of the global capitalist economy. In Alberta, this has resulted in provincial government cut backs to the ordinances designed to reduce the risk of events such as wildfires. In a statement, Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry revealed that it had consequently deferred some fire prevention projects and cut air tanker contracts.
To causally link individual events to climate change is a simplification. But, as Elizabeth Colbert wrote in the New Yorker last week,
“to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense. We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno. We need to own up to our responsibility, and then we need to do something about it. The fire next time is one that we’ve been warned about, and that we’ve all had a hand in starting.”
My hope is that by elucidating (much further than I have here) the complex political economy and political ecology of events such as the Fort McMurray wildfire, we might contribute toward the emergence of a greater consciousness of an economic system which simultaneously attacks that upon which it’s existence depends, placing short-term profit and the wealth of the privileged few before the future security and wellbeing of the many.