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How Enbridge Navigates Issues of Nature
And Canadian Identity in Representing
The Northern Gateway Pipeline
April 15th, 2014
The Northern Gateway Pipeline is a new project proposed by Enbridge. If built, it will run 1,177 kilometers from northeast of Edmonton (Bruderheim, AB) to Kitimat, BC on the West Coast. It is intended to transport, on average, 525,000 barrels of crude oil per day westbound from the highly contentious oil sands of northern Alberta to Kitimat’s pacific port where it will be shipped by oil tankers to refineries in the Eastern Pacific marketplace, particularly China.
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George Grant argues that “the vast majority of Canadians are a product of western civilization and live entirely within the forms and assumptions of that enterprise,” but ‘western civilization’ as a term is becoming inadequate, for the ‘forms and assumptions of that enterprise’ are essentially the forms and assumptions of capitalism, which is bound to become global by its own internal mechanisms. It may have been true at the time of Grant’s writing that “our very form of life depends on our membership in the western industrial empire which is centred in the U.S.A. and which stretches out in its hegemony into parts of Western Europe and which controls South America and much of Africa and Asia,” but that form of life depends on wherever that hegemonic power stems from, and that is increasingly Asia writ large, and specifically China. We can see Prime Minister Harper positioning himself accordingly when asked by the The Vancouver Board of Commerce his thoughts on expanding trade to Asia:
[The Asia-Pacific gateway] will continue to be a priority because we have kind of identified in terms of international trade three broad priorities, two of which we’ve moved forward on very aggressively and those are trade agreements we’ve had with the Americas and obviously now with Europe, but the really big one is to get increased trade to Asia because we do know that in the next century that is where the largest portion of global growth is going to be. […] So this is where we want to make the substantial investments necessary to take advantage of all the resource and other growth opportunities we have in Asia. So these are the two big things we need to do to exploit our opportunities in Asia: One is trade agreements […] and the second is the physical infrastructure on the west coast.
Insofar as ‘our very form of life depends on our membership’ in this industrial empire, it is no surprise that this pipeline to the west coast appears represented as not only an economic imperative but as an imperative for our very identity as Canadians if we are to maintain ourselves as the kind of nation we are: a nation of plunder.
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It appears a bold statement, but it resonates with every Canadian who looks back on their public school education and everything they were told about what unifies our country: “Canada’s existence as an economic unit is predicated upon transportation and communication technology. In addition, the idea of Canada depends upon a rhetoric about technology.” Maurice Charland dares to say that Canadian nationalism is essentially technological nationalism, that our nation is unified in the Canadian imagination by the railroad and by the CBC and now by these pipelines. His claim seems validated by the mass of representation proffered by the yes-side of this pipeline debate, while our no-side is attached to that other great Canadian narrative, that of infinite nature, both of which are tied to the notion of frontier.
To the no-side, then, this pipeline is a worm in the apple. To the yes-side, there would be no apple without this pipeline. The yes-side stands by this narrative that there would be no Canada without the CPR stitching it together from coast to coast—that the very character of Canada is manifested in our farfetched wonders of technology by which we master this inconceivably sublime wilderness. But, as Charland points out, if this is our national identity, it is as empty and nationally generic as an hollow train car. What do the train cars and pipelines that define us actually carry? There is nothing essentially Canadian about their content. Nor is there anything essentially Canadian about railways and pipes themselves, they could be built anywhere, they have nothing to do with who we are as people. If this is what makes us Canadian, “the content of the Canadian identity would be but technological nationalism itself.”
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Beyond the narratives, the truth of this state is that it was a profitable colony (imposed on the preceding tenants), and insofar as our identity is wrapped up in our technological feats, we can be sure that our entire existence as a nation continues to be “one based in the circulation or communication of commodities and capital.” And despite this already rather unsatisfying narrative, we still must remember that the west was not won for the sake of some unifying spirit, but rather “the civilization the railroad extended was one of commerce as the CPR extended eastern economic interests.” Now we embark on the 21st century’s great Canadian project, with the Northern Gateway to the western shores and the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick. Perhaps this can continue to satisfy the same imperative as the train: to send off some thing our foreign imperial rulers require. But one cannot help but ask if this new technological stitching will really hold together our nation and finally mollify its identity crisis, or is it just disguising and repeating those same economic interests once again, with another empty notion of Canadian self as the reprised outcome.
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Watch this Enbridge advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tkJ7fdCzk4
Transcript from 2013 Enbridge ad:
Every second of every day we look for better—a better night’s sleep, a better parking spot, a better view, and when we are unsure we have no problem asking: ‘Which is better?’ We want our kids to do better than us, and our country to do better for everyone. Wanting better isn’t a bad thing cause it pushes us ahead. Building a better pipeline can make us better: the safest pipeline Canada has ever seen. One that’s better at protecting what matters most to us: our fish, our forests, our waters. Our better will not be at the expense of making other things worse. We’ll respect nature and everything that lives within it. If we are open to question, to challenge, to debate, we can get to better together.
Is this not our national myth in its most colloquial form?: the myth of Progress qua technological advance—which is simply the capitalist ethos projected onto a nation capitalism founded. We hear this narrative read by a plainly northern BC/Alberta voice, possibly even indigenous, accompanied by an inspiring piano arpeggiato as exuberant images flood the screen: happy, laughing, wonder-filled Canadians immersed in both their domesticity and in their great Canadian wilderness. These are all signs we can read. For instance, one cannot help but notice the semiotic hoodwink when the ad for the pipeline that carries oil mentions ‘a better parking spot’ and we are shown images of a crowded bike rack. The syntagmatic order of the images tell their own story. The first few shots foreshadow the visual narrative we are about to take in. First: man at home in garage; second: man at leisure in lake with fishing rod; third: young girl with immense sumptuous tree. The next twenty seconds of this one-minute spot unload a host of images representing our urban existence, particularly its domestic aspects, as if to remind us of the mode and standard of being our industrial imperialist subservience maintains for us. The following ten seconds are filled with distant aerial aesthetically pleasing depictions of our technological industrial achievements in seafaring, agriculture, lumbering—our roads, our train tracks, all those glorious mediums by which Canadians have subdued and wringed the value from our impossibly large land. The final thirty seconds show an onslaught of images alternating between natural beauty on the one hand, and on the other, Canadians taking their solitary leisure in those same sublime settings. Enbridge hasn’t missed a thing!, except of course for a single image of a pipeline or anything remotely related to oil extraction. It is clear: oil is not the issue. The viewer becomes aware that the Northern Gateway Pipeline is not about oil, it is about the maintenance of our Canadian way of life.
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What is it to live Canadian-ly? This is not a question directed toward the aboriginal population whose first home, whose world, was always this colossal continent. This question is posed at the invading victors who wrote the history and have maintained their heavy steady rule for centuries, trying to ignore that this is not in fact a ‘no-man’s-land’. From this invader’s point of view, is living Canadian-ly essentially surviving always on the edge of a mentally insuperable frontier? This is Northrop Frye’s diagnosis exactly. He writes: “to feel ‘Canadian’ was to feel part of a no-man’s-land with huge rivers, lakes, and islands that very few Canadians had ever seen. […] What is important here, for our purposes, is the position of the frontier in the Canadian imagination.” Marshall McLuhan sees it too. He characterizes our frontier mentality as essentially individual, seeing the occupation of nature as something we brave alone (“The European habitually goes out to be social and comes home to be alone. The American and Canadian do exactly the reverse.”), which means that our relation to this vast wilderness that envelops us is one in which the individual ventures out and into it, conquering it, asserting our dominance, proving our strength and wherewithal. In our post-industrial modernity the spirit is no different, though our frontier imagination plays itself out more often in leisure aimed at ‘finding yourself’ than in real survival. As McLuhan sees it, “a century of war on the wilderness made customary the habit of going outside to confront and explore the wilderness and of going inside to be social and secure.” The images in the Enbridge commercial can be read, in the Barthean sense, as a myth-text confirming McLuhan’s argument.
Frye confirms Charland’s technological nationalism diagnosis when he basically posits Canadian cultural shortcomings directly on this pioneer mentality: “pioneer conditions tend to make energetic and uncritical work an end in itself, to preach a gospel of social unconsciousness, which lingers long after the pioneer conditions have disappeared. The impressive achievements of such a society are likely to be technological. It is the inarticulate part of communication, railways and bridges and canals and highways, that Canada, one of whose symbols in the taciturn beaver, has shown its real strength.” It looks like the pipeline is just the next thing on the list.
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Enbridge’s website for this project, gatewayfacts.com, is supposed to assuage the fears of the public, providing them all the information they need on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. What form does this information take? Click ‘about the project’ and instead of any real information on the pipeline up pops a page titled “Meet Janet Holder” with her face looking markedly darker than usual, affected with an almost aboriginal skin-tone, standing before a pristine lake surrounded by trees with the bold tag line, “A proud British Columbian is leading the project.” Nothing on this page tells the reader anything about the pipeline itself. Instead we have surfed here to build rapport with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company’s Northern Gateway Pipelines division. We learn her hometown is Prince George. Read: she herself is a child of the Northern forests and she would not be pushing a pipeline she did not believe was safe for our home and good for our people. Her childhood goals are somehow important to the pipeline so those are listed as well: “Her love of music goes all the way back to her childhood where she dreamed of being a music teacher or classical pianist.” Read: Enbridge can be pro-industry without being anti-arts; arts are properly imagined within the leisure of childhood; remember your childhood and your children’s childhood and the economy that sustains it. Her ‘inspiring accomplishments’ seem relevant to the pipeline too: “Janet is a fighter – she worked through three surgeries and six months of chemotherapy to beat breast cancer – and earned herself a promotion while doing so.” Read: she is a finite human too, for whom you can feel empathy (unlike a corporation); if she can beat cancer, she can make a safe pipeline—we’ve got a fighter at the helm; she is a fearless, strong woman and is not spoiled by the privilege and comfort of the old boys club. For some reason we ought to know she has a boarder collie and a golden retriever, just like you or someone you know probably had growing up. Read: if she loves dogs, she loves animals, and she loves nature; dog-crazy Vancouverites, I’m one of you!; I am both friend and master/tamer of nature. Last, and most important of all, we are told she is “happiest amongst nature, Janet loves exploring the woods near her home, ATVing and fishing in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter.” Read: Janet loves the environment and she’s an Enbridge executive! Enbridge must not be such an environmental reprobate after all!
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Janet Holder is being cast in a canonically Canadian narrative, a narrative Frye touches on: “the myth of the hero brought up in the forest retreat, awaiting the moment when his [or her] giant strength will be fully grown and he [or she] can emerge into the world.” On this webpage Holder is not a big-oil executive, she is the average Canadian. She has always been full of potential, and with hard work she actualized that potential. And this project, the viewer ought to realize, is full of potential too. This hero-in-waiting narrative is equally applicable to our techno-national spirit, especially with regard to this newest infrastructural expansion Holder here stands in as the humanizing proxy for. Canada is always one more technological megaproject away from finally emerging on the world-scene as savior in the eleventh hour of the globe’s need. This is central to our identity. It is one of the core tenets of our national religion, as Grant places it: “like all civilizations the West is based on a great religion—the religion of progress. This is the belief that the conquest of human and non-human nature will give existence meaning.” Holder ATV’s through the great Canadian expanses, she commands her tamed dogs, and she defies the cancer that would bid her die; Enbridge defies the impossible distances between resource and market, commands a tamed nature, and dangles forth the jobs we are told we need lest this nation die.
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It is easy to see that Enbridge, like so many other companies today, are using ‘nature’ as a performance, a reified image, and of all the culprits, Enbridge is clearly amongst the most absurd of these pseudo-Svengali’s. We have taken to calling this variety of propagandizing ‘green-washing’; what we see here is exemplary of the term—Enbridge, a company whose very product is the fossil fuel which directly causes climate change, is finding ways to semiotically and psychologically associate themselves with environmental stewardship while cloaking their industrial aesthetic. With this green-washed life-portrait of Janet Holder in mind we remember their commercial. We are shown images of lakes and fishing, of towering trees and awe-filled children, despite being sold on a pipeline that transports fossil fuel. It is clear that these are signs whose significations have been dramatically altered to suit the needs of Enbridge. The image of the tree does not here signify a tree, it signifies a reified concept of intact ‘nature’ that Enbridge wishes to positively associate itself with. We see too the sport fisherman who stands confidently in a pristine lake. He pulls up a gorgeous healthy fish then releases it. He is responsible master who conquers nature to the point of making mere sport of it, but dutifully returns it to its ‘natural state’ after having had his fun, all holes in the mouth aside.
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Perhaps what is more theoretically interesting in this instance of rapport building is something I propose we call flesh-washing, which is simply a term for a tendency Guy Debord developed from out of Karl Marx long ago, a tendency that explains why advertising and marketing are at all necessary. The commodity, in this case oil, lacks all the human meaning of a gift or an object we crafted ourselves and therefore lacks any human investment or meaning beyond its mechanically fluctuating price per barrel. It must be given life, must be given a face, if we are to care about it (or rather if we are not to fear it will leak into our water and mindlessly harm us). Here we are given Janet Holder in the place of reasoned considerations of the pipeline itself. Oil/pipeline, flesh-washed.
Moreover, insofar as the use-value of a commodity becomes ever less important than its exchange value, the mere image of the commodity comes to represent the product more than any utility it might possess for us. This is because we as a community, throughout human history, have been able to provide for ourselves the things we actually need. But in order to turn capital into more capital via commodities, we must be convinced we need things we don’t need as a way of fulfilling our real emotional needs, especially since our emotional needs are in fact satisfied socially and not materially. But while this very same mode of production increasingly alienates us from one another by forcing us into competition ahead of cooperation, it simultaneously holds out the commodity as a way to happiness and social reconnection. The Rolex is the perfect example: despite innumerable opportunities to know the time for free, and innumerable watches for a miniscule fraction of the price, consumer’s want the Rolex for what it signifies: wealth, power, decadence, style, etc. Advertisements for the Rolex therefore do not elaborate on its pragmatic use-values but focus instead on images of the renewed social relations wearing a Rolex promises you, for this has become the true source of its hugely inflated exchange-value.
Is this what is happening with oil in these Enbridge representations? One could argue that the use-value of oil is unquestionable. Yet the images shown us are not oil in use (they even choose to show a bike instead of a car) but rather nature intact, mastered, unaffected, reduced in all its pseudomysticism to a Canadian playground for the leisure time our oil revenue affords us. Perhaps oil is not shown in its full use-value for fear that we may legitimately question the luxuries it affords us when balanced against the impending disaster fossil fuels and technological failures may reek on our habitat (our habitat, not just bears and salmon). We might actually stop and ask, is it worth the risk? It is wiser to show us images that depict a harmony between oil production and the integrity of our environment. Why convince the public of a pipeline that will inevitably be built regardless of their dissent? Instead, spend that ad money mitigating our fear of the risks so we don’t chain ourselves to any bulldozers.
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Excerpts from an interview on Sun News Media with their pundit, Simon Kent, discussing the NEB decision set to be released later that day confirming or denying the viability of the pipeline, and some liberal-bashing for good measure:
http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/northern-gateway-pipeline-d-day/2950896041001 (You don’t really need to watch this if you don’t want to. I’ve transcribed the important parts of the discussion. Also, I’ve tried to clean up their messy speaking a little but it is mostly transcribed verbatim, everything you read here is sic.)
Anchor: […] If it is approved it will mean we start moving bitumen from the oil sands through a pipeline and we can get into the market, to places like China! Seems like a win-win. Let’s bring in our Simon Kent to talk to us about just how important this decision is.
Kent: It’s predicated on a lot of things: jobs, prosperity, and a future for a whole lot of industries in this country. I don’t know what Mr. Trudeau has against all those things. I know he is against this pipeline per se but what does he got against all these other prospects which are positive ticks for the Canadian economy? 
‘Seems like a win-win’—the anchor introduces her guest by cosigning her ‘objective’ common-sense appraisal of the situation before anything is said. The viewer is encouraged to read this situation in a certain way. She is not the expert. The anchor has just as many questions as you. Her opinion sides with the public. In reality, her role is to feed the expert unbearably easy and substantiating questions. Her off-hand comments of approval are meant to side with the other ‘objective’ on-lookers at home watching. The way this far right media outlet structures their debates precludes any semblance of actual debate. They set up the most embarrassing straw-men arguments and then barely knock them down. It is frankly embarrassing to watch. Observe the logical inconsistency in the notion that a politician cannot be for some pipelines and against others, as if every pipeline is exactly the same. This logic only follows if you are myopic enough to think that a pipeline simply moves oil to market thus making jobs and multiplying capital. The notion that some pipelines are inherently more prone to spills or social impacts because of their geographic situation goes completely unaddressed as if it is not a real problem. Despite this inanity, this form of representation works, and has been working for a long time. It is pretty obvious but it bears repeating: Successful deployment of biased representation is just as much if not more about what is not said and about who is not allowed to speak. The conversation is already structured straight out the gate.
Kent: […] On the other hand, the countervailing weight to this argument is the demonstrable fact that there is no point having energy in the ground. If you want to add value to it you have to get it to market. You can either treat it in Canada and then unship it [sic] to the world’s biggest energy market across in the US or down in the Pacific. And I mentioned China before but you look at that Pacific rim of countries, there’s China, there’s Indonesia, there’s the Philippines, all these countries, Malaysia, are all growing, they’re gonna need energy, and Canada has it in abundance. Getting it through a pacific port is the safest and best way to serve everyone’s needs. And Mr. Trudeau, you can’t walk both sides of the streets, you can’t like some pipelines and not like others […] get off the fence, make a decision, and support Canadian interests first.
Simon Kent sees our country as a sum of its yet-to-be-exploited resources. The capitalist worldview can only see that which it reifies. Things begin to exist to the capitalist sphere of Being only insofar as there is a monetizable demand for them. If something is in demand it seems utterly egregious to not produce the correspondent supply. Kent cannot abide the notion of ‘energy in the ground’ for the ground only exists to Kent’s approximation insofar as it is composed of saleable energy. It is only logical, given his myopic Weltanschuuang, that this energy must have its value added to it, and the only way to do that is to extract it and deliver it to the demand that calls out for its soul-mate. When that union is complete, only then can the fruit of Kent’s capitalist universe materialize: money. Insofar as money is understood as the highest possible interest of human being, it is no surprise that Kent sees Justin Trudeau’s qualified opinions on oil exports as categorically opposed to the Canadian citizen’s interests.
Anchor: […] you know, I’m gonna say what seems to be the popular decision [she thinks the NEB might turn down the pipeline despite it being, by her judgment, a great project] because with Northern Gateway it is mean to hurt the environment, it’s not popular, it’s all these things…
Kent [interrupting]: And cue the violin section, every single time, cue the violin section, let’s all feel sorry for it, and we all love the environment, like we all like motherhood, but we also like jobs! we also like to live in a country that has a good balance of trade, we like to live in a country that has prosperity because prosperity is something we can share. And it will keep you warm at night having energy and having prosperity, keep you much warmer than it is having nice green values.
Sarcasm is far more powerful than the pundit’s straw man because it exudes the impression of common-sense. If something can be communicated sarcastically, it is understood to be subtending the obvious, prior to any sophistry on the part of ‘so-called experts’. It appeals to the anti-intellectualism of certain swaths of the Canadian population. In this way, sarcasm is the highest sophistry, because it circumvents reason to appeal to everyman-ideals of North American ideology, trumping all debate. The straw man arguments and cherry-picked statistics always culminate in this ultimate trump card, the sarcastic gesture, the ultimate dismissal of serious argumentation. When Kent says, twice, ‘and cue the violins’, he is really saying that for all his great arguments for why this pipeline should be built, at the end of the day it comes down to common-sense pragmatism, the nose-to-the-ground straight hard facts of survival (‘staying warm’) that capitalism is theoretically and ideologically rooted in (despite being the complete abnegation of in practice). It is a wink and a nudge that says ‘ all you hard-working Canadians out there know what I mean—you get it. Environmental ideals are all fine and well, but someone has to bring home the bacon.’ The sleight of hand played here is not so easy to spot: Kent is appealing to an absolute and obvious truth that every organism must alter its environment to stay alive by the sheer fact of its spatiotemporal existence. What is left out, however, is any serious consideration of just how much alteration is necessary before you begin to exhaust that environment. It is the we-can-therefore-we-must mentality subversively rearing its ugly head. This is a semiotics that cloaks the obvious using the more obvious, a treacherous sophistry.
Kent: […] I think if Mr. Harper comes down on the side of jobs and if the report recommends it should go forward, Mr. Trudeau will either have to come up with an alternative or just shut up.
Anchor: But either way, even if it’s a no, I mean, the optics would be great if it’s a green light and it’s passed all of its assessment points, but if it’s a no, the feds can still overrule that.
Kent: the first way is the best way but the government does have other alternatives cause ultimately it is there to govern, ultimately it is there to make the decision that will benefit the most Canadians, and I think demonstrably this pipeline going forward will benefit the most Canadians and I think the government knows that.
Read: regardless of the outcome of this democratic process, the government will implement what is best for the people, even if Canadians are overwhelmingly convinced of the opposite. Read: if Justin Trudeau does not propose some alternative way of plundering our oil resources as quickly as possible he can shut up. These pundits determine exactly what can count as an answer. At the exact breaking point where their logic may suddenly appear terribly flawed, the viewer is assaulted with the spectacular shut up in a way that cashes in a touch of emotional resolve to compensate for the black and white logical fallacy just deployed. Again, the very notion of simply not plundering the harmful fossil fuels will not even be tabled as long as Kent controls the conversation. Even the notion of slow growth or cautious growth is considered disposable. Trudeau’s actions are depicted as directly hurting Canadians if he stands against this pipeline without proposing an even more expedient way to exploit our resources to the same end. In the context of the pipeline, Kent has become the rarified essence of Canada’s long legacy of technological nationalism by implicitly casting Canadian interest and technological expansion & resource exploitation as synonymous.
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An historical point from Northrop Frye concerning our founding actions and our subsequent national identity:
After the Northwest Passage failed to materialize, Canada became a colony in the mercantilist sense, treated by others less like a society than as a place to look for things. French, English, Americans plunged into it to carry off its supplies of furs, minerals, and pulpwood, aware only of their immediate objectives. From time to time recruiting officers searched the farms and villages to carry young men off to death in a European dynastic quarrel. […] Canadians have learned from their imaginative experience to look at each other in much the same way: ‘as objects, even as obstacles,’ to quote Miss Macpherson on a Canadian autobiography.
Is this passage any less true today? Is this country not constituted, in the eyes of the world marketplace and in the eyes of its citizens, as an elaborate jumble of inexhaustible resources? We may not provide things anymore, but we certain provide the things needed to make things. Do not the officers of empire still scour these lands looking for young men? Not to die but to live—to live to work! They’re much less likely to die, and they are very well compensated, at least fiscally, but they are still seen by economists and politicians as mere cogs in the economic puzzle, the crucial producer/consumer dyad, crucial to getting the oil out of the ground and crucial to keeping at least some of this plundered wealth in Canada through the shopping they are compelled to carry out as spiritual compensation for their expenditure of time and energy (life). If ever they are seen as political beings, Canadians seem to be ‘obstacles’ that stand in the way of policies the government is convinced are in their benefit. If they are not seen thus, they are seen as objects—as the logical supplement to jobs, that ever expedient political token. What little individuality and patently human existence we expect from the Canadian beyond their workaday week is truly summed up in the brutally flat depiction of Janet Holder and her blatantly Canadian relationship with nature, or at least Enbridge’s semiotically invested notion of it.
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When Canadian priorities are represented as corporate industrial investment projects that can turn nature into money while magically keeping nature intact, we recognize that a reified concept of ‘nature’ has replaced any notion of real nature as it actually materially exists. We are kept from knowing nature as it really exists and really works. The Harper government continues to defund and gag scientific researchers while systematically dismantling the environmental research apparatuses this country was so proud of. Contradictory understandings of nature must not be allowed to enter the sphere of representation if they will jeopardize the capital project. Nature must be understood as this immutable endless frontier from which an unlimited supply of resources can be extracted if done responsibly. The facts of climate change cry out against this hubris. These facts must therefore be silenced.
The effect of all these commercials and websites is that Canadian identity is both established and confirmed in this delicate master-slave relation to a concept of nature that is linked back to the frontier origin of our collective spirit. When this is pictorially represented to us, “the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a ‘part of society’ it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness,” keeping in mind that the ‘spectacle’ in this case is the Canadian frontier myth of nature itself, which justifies our real-life expansion of resource extraction infrastructure and technology, which is and always has been the real purpose of this colony. The frontier image we erect here can legitimately be called Canada’s narrative idol with its proper god being Progress itself, which drives us deeper into the fray, wishing to forever expand this frontier further and farther. We must always remind ourselves that this spectacle, this ludicrously long phallic tube stretching through perilous mountain passes along with all the commercials and websites that convince us of it, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” This is the modern process of our coming to consensus on how we belong to one another. This is what we have deigned to call democracy. This tube.
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Returning to the Sun News Media interview with conservative pundit, Simon Kent:
Kent: [….] And nothing is without risk in life. […] Life involves risk. Yes. […] There’s risks involved with everything. You can’t have anything 100% risk free. We have to accept the pipeline will come with an element of risk but that element of risk is the least worst choice of a whole lot of other alternatives.
Risk, is this not the heartbeat of this entire debate? Let’s consider the implications of this corporate media pundit deploying these negotiating phrases. Harold Innis famously argued that the media has an inherent space-bias as opposed to a time-bias. By this he meant that media travels quickly and is constantly renewing itself. Yesterday’s news is worthless. Media’s concern therefore was not to produce knowledge of lasting value for its readers, but rather to simply inform them. This informing process is funded and thus mediated by advertisement spending, and of course the worth of that ad space is boosted by larger readership. In order for newspapers to be profitable, they needed to write stories people wanted to read in order to sell space to advertisers who wanted people to want their product:
Increased newspaper circulation supported a demand for advertising and for new methods of marketing, notably the department store. The type of news essential to an increase in circulation, to an increase in advertising, and to an increase in the sale of news was necessarily that which catered to excitement. A prevailing interest in orgies and excitement was harnessed in the interest of trade.
In this relationship we see all the major elements of this ideological system coming into confluence. The commodity has no meaning for people, they must be convinced of its utility and of its ability to signify a meaning if its producer is not going to risk going out of business. This requires advertising that can cloak mere things with meanings they do not inherently have. Advertisers look for the mediums with the most reach. Media organizations begin by being concerned with reporting the truth and generating knowledge, but competition with other media outlets forces them to garner more advertisers and readers to stay in the game or else risk being put out of business. They can obtain more readers and thus more advertisers by publishing sensational stories, despite the risk of being called out for their sensationalism. The sensational stories begin to play the same role as the sensationalized commodities advertised: they become reified spectacles. The end effect is that the media’s interest is in reporting only the most sensational news. Eventually, it becomes the media’s best interest to make whatever it is reporting as sensational as possible. By this trend, Innis argues that media has effectively started wars by manufacturing popular opinion, all in the effort to sell more newspapers etc., and thus more ads. Innis points to the Spanish-American War. We can just as easily point to the War in Iraq. That space-bias of media, its total lack of concern with the perpetuity of its content, will echo in the empty metal walls of this pipeline when either the oil or its demand is soon exhausted.
This inherent evolution of media under the capitalist mode of production has led to a media environment today shaped not by the intention of reaching as many viewers as possible at once, but rather one in which individual moguls own numerous media outlets that each confirm and reinforce as many particular worldviews as possible. In so doing, political conversation has become less and less possible as polarities have become more and more exacerbated by the total insulation of each person’s sources of slanted information. When a media outlet knows those who disagree with them are not listening, they feel even more free to say whatever they please knowing no one will question them on it. In due time this becomes the state of public discourse in general. In America it already has. Canada is right behind if not right there with them already.
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These results, at every corner, turn on the notion of risk. Risk is at the very heart of the capitalist mode of production. Marx points out that the bourgeoisie cannot help but exploit the proletariat or else risk being put out of business and cast into that same quagmire. It is the eat-or-be-eaten ethos of vulgar Darwinism (that of Herbert Spencer), where only the strong survive. With that said, the only way to stay ahead of the risk of falling into poverty is to take risks. Capital can only ever multiply insofar as it is risked in some venture or other. The capitalist spirit takes for granted that the greater the risk, the greater the profit to be made. This is the exact spirit Kent is manifesting, and with people of his persuasion this manifestation is legion. When he clumsily exclaims “you can’t have anything 100% risk free. We have to accept the pipeline will come with an element of risk but that element of risk is the least worst choice of a whole lot of other alternatives,” he is calling forth the logic of capitalism in direct response to the very heart of every argument in opposition to the pipeline.
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Oddly, the crux of the argument is essentially the same for both the for- and against- parties in this pipeline debate. It may seem that the for-party argues for jobs and economic growth while the against-party argues for the safety of the environment and cautious stewardship of our land and resources, pitting the two sides in a conversation where neither party can ultimately understand one another, but this is not the case. Both parties in this debate have centered their arguments on risk. The misunderstanding that places an insurmountable chasm between the two parties is their polar opposite disposition toward risk. The nay-side sees the risk as being catastrophic, especially given what we know about climate change, and the sheer impossibility that a pipe running through the mountains (and over critical aquifers) will not be ruptured by one of the regularly occurring landslides and avalanches. At base, they see human life (and the environment that sustains human life) as being incomparably more valuable than any amount of projected revenue pursuant to a risk this dire. The yes-side, however, can only see risk in the same way a gambler might. Risk is the secret currency of capital accumulation. It must be tended carefully, like a fire, but without risk money would never be made into more money. For them, money comes before human life, which is not to say they are monsters, but rather to say that the capitalist Weltanschuuang cannot imagine life as sustainable without the money that buys the food and clothes and Rolex’s and Nintendo’s, etc., and maintains our Canadian way of life. (These two opposed understandings of risk could easily be applied to Polanyi’s theory of the double movement and what motivates it.) The result is that the mediating entities that must negotiate these opposing views in order to achieve their goals represent the pipeline project less and less in terms of economic gains, since the yes-side is already won over, and more and more in terms of mitigating risk. It is therefore no surprise when the verdict materializes from all these battles of representation. On December 20th, 2013 the National Energy Board approves the Northern Gateway Pipeline project with 209 conditions that must be met—conditions that mitigate risks to the environment and communities surrounding the pipeline’s route. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, despite the plasible horrors we are wagering, the pipe will be built.
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What of this entire National Energy Board review process itself? Is it not itself an act of representation without any effect on the real, on the decision that is already made by the general spirit of our epoch: capital must be put to work. George Grant suggests that the west only has a few real ideological proofs it relies on, at least in his time when our southern neighbors were warring with Vietnam, and those ideologies are the plain obviousness of the west’s material wealth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, that western nations allow their citizens to at least express dissent. But “does this dissent in the West present a real alternative of action, or is it simply froth on the surface which is necessary to the system itself as a safety valve?” If the overwhelming evidence and the general agreement of Canadians (see this article published Thursday) is that this project is not in our best interest, why did the NEB approve the pipeline (with or without conditions)? It seems to me most likely that Grant is right, that this entire process of hearing out the dissenting parties is undergone as a safety valve that lets people feel they are being listened to while still letting the government-private company partnerships proceed as planned, regardless of what is said. The process is an inconvenience for capitalism’s individual battles (that is, every particular project) but a sure win for the war (the general project of multiplying capital with the flaccid consent of the exploited).
The fact remains that if somehow idle capital did not get put to work in this pipeline, which it almost certainly will, it must be and will be put to use in some other way, and people will be free to peacefully dissent as much as they please, so long as they do not ultimately negate the process. We are left wondering if the best we can do as individuals is fight to make sure capital is put to use in a way that minimizes damage to the real human beings and/or environment at whose expense it will be turned into more capital. Regardless, Grant’s real point is that to be in a relationship with your society, your country, your civilization, where your voice seems to be heard but never listened to is, in Grant’s view, the most profound form of alienation: “Man is by nature a political animal and to know that citizenship is an impossibility is to be cut off from one of the highest forms of life.”
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There is a third understanding of risk.
If we can know one thing with any certainty about these processes of representation in political decision making, it is this: any form of capitalist interest will never represent this third understanding of risk. This is the view that the greatest and best risk worth taking is the risk of living in a radically human way, from a foundation of love and cooperation, curtailing this material decadence, and refusing to be put at odds with your fellow man, regardless of the circumstances. This is the risk to find peace and fulfillment first and foremost in the solidarity of our social and creative existence together. Any entity laboring under capitalist assumptions will never deploy a representation that suggests happiness is possible without all the stuff—without the primary mediation of this material decadence our industrial exploitation of land and people enables. These entities can never not be the “You” addressed by Paul-Émile Borduas and the other Quebecois artists who signed his manifesto—“You can keep your spoils, rational and premeditated like everything else on the warm bosom of decadence. We’ll settle for unpredictable passion; we’ll settle for total risk through global refusal.”
THANKS FOR READING
“Meet Janet Holder.” Northern Gateway. Enbridge. http://www.gatewayfacts.ca/about-the-project/meet-janet-holder (accessed April 14, 2014).
“New Enbridge TV ad: ‘Open to Better’,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tkJ7fdCzk4 (accessed April 14, 2014).
“NORTHERN GATEWAY PIPELINE D-DAY.” Sun News Media. http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/northern-gateway-pipeline-d-day/2950896041001 (accessed April 14, 2014).
“Prime Minister Harper on Canada’s Pacific Gateway.” The Vancouver Board of Trade http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwMVJbXJnPk (Accessed April 15, 2014).
Borduas, Paul-Émile. “Refus Global” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Edited by Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009.
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Grant, George. “Canadian Fate and Imperialism” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Edited by Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009.
Innis, Harold. “A Plea For Time” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Edited by Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: Pluto, 2008.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Canada as Counter-Environment,” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Edited by Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009.
 George Grant, “Canadian Fate and Imperialism,” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 146.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Pluto, 2008), 38. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
 Grant. “Canadian Fate,” 147.
 Maurice Charland, “Technological Nationalism” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 308.
 Ibid., 310. “In the popular mind, Canada exists more because of the technological transcendence of geographical obstacles than because of any politician’s will.”
 Ibid., 315.
 Ibid., 309.
 Northrop Frye, “Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada,”in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 117.
 Marshall McLuhan, “Canada as Counter-Environment,” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 72.
 Ibid., 75.
 Frye, “Conclusion,” 118.
 “Meet Janet Holder.” Northern Gateway. Enbridge. http://www.gatewayfacts.ca/about-the-project/meet-janet-holder (accessed April 14, 2014).
 Frye, “Conclusion,” 118.
 Grant, “Canadian Fate,” 157.
 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983). §48. “In the inverted reality of the spectacle, use value (which was implicitly contained in exchange value) must now be explicitly proclaimed precisely because its factual reality is eroded by the overdeveloped commodity economy and because counterfeit life requires a pseudo-justification.”
 “NORTHERN GATEWAY PIPELINE D-DAY.” Sun News Media. http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/northern-gateway-pipeline-d-day/2950896041001 (accessed April 14, 2014).
 Frye, “Conclusion,” 117.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, §3.
 Ibid., §4.
 Harold Innis, “A Plea For Time” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 43.
 Grant, “Canadian Fate,” 156.
 Ibid., 157.
 Paul-Émile Borduas, “Refus Global” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2009), 108.