Not only are pipelines as Canadian as hockey, maple syrup, and Justin Bieber — so much so that our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, recently announced he’s going to buy Texas-based Kinder Morgan’s 65-year-old, leaky Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion (Cdn) and spend another $10 billion or so building a twinned expansion to carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to British Columbia’s Burrard Inlet, all because Kinder Morgan, facing “unacceptable” risk in completing their project, threatened to back out — but I was born and grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, the hub of Canada’s Chemical Valley (itself the epicentre of Canada’s petrochemical industry) where pipelines funnel Alberta crude to massive refineries that feed petrochemical plants that synthesize everything from rubber to fertilizers, solvents, paint, textiles and plastics, plastics, plastics, bestowing on postwar Sarnia’s refinery and petrochemical workers Canada’s highest standard of living (and more than their share of asbestosis and mesothelioma), wages their wives and daughters then spent in my father’s downtown dress store, spreading the fruits of a fragile prosperity based on products that disrupt the climate, destroy biodiversity, and trash oceans. Is it any wonder that complicity is one of my obsessions or that my first Climate Action Performance Poem announced itself in the voice of Mr. Dil U Ent.
What gets pumped down the pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands is not your grandfather’s crude. It’s dilbit — raw bitumen mixed with a thinner called “diluent.”
… ‘Cause that tar sands muck it’s so damn thick
You can’t stir it with a spoon
Can’t stir it with a stick
You can’t make it slither
Even make it slick
Without Mr Dil U Ent’s magic brew
It’s a stew boiled down
From old boots and shoes
Last year’s mud
Not this year’s honey
A pile of sludge
Not a flood of money …
So pipelines, of course. But jellyfish? Thanks to all that plastic (wiping out predators like sea turtles) and ocean acidification (helping jellyfish out-compete creatures with shells) and oil and gas platforms (splendid jellyfish nurseries) the Jellyfish Gang is taking over the seas —
so you can wave bye bye
to your anchovies
salmon sturgeon the whole Black Sea …
swordfish tuna humpback whales
penguins krill — they’re all gonna fail
’cause co-evolution’s our strategy
we’re partners in progress with humanity
hitchhikers on your GDP
the sole aquatic beneficiaries
of your carbon-crazed economy …
Haven’t we all gone to meetings where speaker after speaker reminds us of the dire facts underlying such verses? At best we leave with information overload, at worst, seriously depressed. We’re at that place Theodor Adorno described decades ago, where “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” Bringing art and activism closer together provides a way of bringing new perspectives to our undeniably desperate situation.
My own pieces explore what it’s like to be stuck, as David Roberts once wrote, “between the impossible and the unthinkable.” How do you curb climate change (or biodiversity loss, deforestation, ocean acidification, or toxic waste) from within a capitalist economy devoted to endless growth? It’s like the Zen koan: “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without hurting the goose or breaking the bottle?” The short answer: you can’t. The slightly longer answer: while I certainly have no answers I believe posing our quandary in a way that shirks neither pole of our dilemma — it’s insolvable; and our lives depend on solving it; and it’s insolvable — helps us stay with that tension until something cracks and light just might pour in. As spoken word’s reliance on rhyme forces novel associations (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer), so too “staying with the trouble” — our intractable contradictions, complications and complicities — provokes unpredictable creative energy.
A few years back, this solo venture blossomed into the Only Planet Cabaret, a collaboration with four other Salt Spring artists and activists that wove singing and songwriting, story-telling, performance poetry and musical theater into a one-hour piece voicing audiences’ unspoken fears, doubts, hopes and inner strengths. The Cabaret combined original material with rewritten and repurposed show tunes, folk songs and rock ‘n’ roll to encourage engagement with the challenges facing us. For that hour we created a space where denial meets hope, despair meets wonder, and complacency meets commitment.
Oh, and I lied about not having answers. I do have one. When it comes to climate change, people always ask:
Where’s our Manhattan Project for carbon sequestration
And alternative energy innovation
Where’s our mass conscription
Where’s our holy crusade to save civilization?
That mastermind behind the globalized conspiracy
To seize control of our whole fossil-fueled economy
And use its engines of growth & prosperity
To raise the heat however many degrees
To trash our poor planet’s liveability.
But I would never leave an audience or a rally with the impression that all is hopelessness and despair. We’ve all heard of overshoot, ecological footprints and how for everyone to live like the average North American would require four Earths. What we don’t hear nearly enough about is the obvious solution — 4More Planets!
‘Cause if 4More Planets
Is what that takes
Then 4 More Planets is what we’ll make
The technology’s not esoteric
We’ve got a killer crew
Of bio-geo-eco-hydro-chemical mechanics
We’ll terraform some asteroids
Geoengineer the moon
Have 4More Planets up and running real soon
‘Cause with 4More Planets just like ours
Every kid alive’ll get to drive their own car …
And that Trans Mountain pipeline I mentioned earlier? On March 23 I became the 100th person arrested for blocking the entry gate to its Burnaby construction site. The number’s now well over 200. It’s been a movement led by First Nations Coast Protectors. As young Tsleil-Waututh warrior women chanted as we marched to the gate, in their own Climate Action Performance Poem:
The people gonna rise like the water,
Gonna stop Kinder Morgan now.
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter,
Saying stop Kinder Morgan now
In the latest twist in this improbable saga, on August 30 Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the federal approvals process failed to adequately consult First Nations, and failed to take into account impacts from increased tanker traffic on the Salish Sea and the Southern resident Orca population. Approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project has been quashed and all construction permits cancelled, halting construction only days after shovels hit the ground. Shortly after the decision was released Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a news conference, “We are absolutely committed to moving ahead with this project.” It isn’t over yet.
(Top image: Trans Mountain workers on the pipeline Anchor Loop Project in Alberta. Photo courtesy of Kinder Morgan Canada. Downloaded from Canada’s National Observer.)
Murray Reiss is a poet, editor and blues harmonica player from Salt Spring Island, BC. His first collection, The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry in 2013. His second book, Cemetery Compost, came out in 2016. Reiss brings his words to life on the stage as well as the page. As a Climate Action Performance Poet, he’s performed at rallies, marches, readings and, as a founding member of the Only Planet Cabaret, on stages from Salt Spring to Nanaimo, Victoria to Vancouver.