If you have about 22 minutes to spend learning about the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline, I would like to suggest a little experiment.
Now, which one did you find more impactful?
If you do not have the time to read the article or watch the TedxTalk, I will give you a quick summary of both. In the article, Bill McKibbon is cited as saying the pipeline represents “the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” The article goes on to do the arithmetic in support of this statement. In the TedxTalk, Garth Lenz spoke about the Boreal Forest and the Alberta Tar Sands while showing his photographs of both. The Boreal Forest, which runs through the middle of Canada, is the largest and most intact (at nearly 95%) forest in the world. In the heart of this ecosystem is the Alberta Tar Sands, the largest oil reserve in the world outside of Saudi Arabia. The tar sands contain the world’s dirtiest oil, which produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other oil. The mining of the tar sands is devastating the Boreal Forest, which is one of our best defenses against climate change, due to its sequestering of greenhouse gases.
The article and the TedxTalk are making the same point–exploiting the tar sands is bad for the environment–the former through calculations and the later through photos. I personally find the photographs much more persuasive. I have read many articles this quarter on the tar sands and the pipeline, and I was previously exposed to the issue while living in Canada. In all this time, I have only seen single photographs, attached to news stories, of the tar sands being mined, which are revolting enough, but do not provide the full picture. Seeing photos of the mines in conjunction with the forest reminds me of exactly what is being destroyed. Also, a single photograph of a mine does not do justice to the scale of this project (which Lenz said is the largest industrial project in the history of the world). It is easy to surmise from a lone photograph that, although repugnant looking, the damage is not that far reaching, which simply is not true, both in terms of what can and cannot be seen. Photographs can be extremely powerful, allowing us to see the beauty and the devastation that we may not experience directly. Lenz’ photographs are by far the most potent account of the tar sands I have seen to date. After seeing Lenz’ work, I sought out more photographs of the tar sands ( see National Geographic). In so doing, I realized that seeing multiple photographs in succession is much more powerful than a single photograph attached to an article. Multiple photographs tell a story. They are not static. They are art. The power of these photographs speaks to the important role art can play in the environmental movement. Art can reach, experientially and emotionally, as well as motivate us in ways that reporting of facts simply cannot.