Environmental activist Bill McKibben took part in the July 5-6 Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering in northern Alberta, Canada, focused on the destruction—to the immediate environment and to the climate itself— caused by tar sands oil extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S.
TO WALK, SLOWLY, across the tar sands complex of Alberta is to see our real-life equivalent of The Lord of the Rings’ Mordor. It really is as bad as everyone says. On this one eight-mile loop, we saw vast stretches of muskeg turned into dry, sandy desert; we saw dry-sandy desert that had been further converted into inky tailings lakes; and we were never out of earshot of the cannon that fire all day and all night to keep ducks from landing in the toxic waters. This goes on forever. The most comprehensive way to see it is from the air, I guess, but the best way to feel it is on foot.
Especially if you’re walking with the people who know this land best—have known it for thousands of years. Each year since 2010, local First Nations groups have organized a Healing Walk through the tar sands, and this year’s fourth iteration was by far the largest. Hundreds of people from around the continent camped for several days in a stretch of nearby boreal forest, held workshops and ceremonies, and then emerged for the hike through the industrial barrens.
The Healing Walk was designed to be almost post-political, though most of the people there—Clayton Thomas-Muller, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Crystal Lameman, Gitz Crazyboy, Bill Erasmus, and many more—had been leaders in the indigenous fight against the Keystone pipeline and the whole tar sands idea. For a weekend, though, fighting took second place to connecting, to figuring out how to help the communities devastated by this crazy bid for the dirtiest energy on earth and how to help the leaders and volunteers strung out by the never-ending battle.
The spirit was rich and deep. Minutes after midnight on the first day of the walk, a baby was born in the teepee at the campground—an event hailed as auspicious by everyone. And as we walked, the hundreds of trucks that passed by in a never-ending stream were far more likely to honk in welcome than to wave a fist. In fact, one of the things that struck me was how hard this place is on workers—we went by one “upgrader” refinery belching a stink of sulphur, and 50 feet from it were the hundreds of barracks used by the workers who come for 21-day shifts moving this oil.
One of the doctors walking with us said that none of the workers were ever tested for chemical exposure—the companies, and the Canadian government that acts as their subsidiary, simply don’t want to know. The workers are dispensable, the landscape is dispensable, the people who lived there for millennia are dispensable. And of course the planet is dispensable too—that’s why they’re willing to pump such volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.
But people are finding out. The Keystone battle was a way to help people find out. You can’t hide this kind of debacle forever—and once the wound is out in the open, maybe it really can start to heal.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.