Tall Tales from Tinseltown

Before I get started on the latest surreal swipe at my province from a Hollywood celebrity with too much power and too little capacity for critical thought, here’s an exercise you need to do:

Open up a new tab on your browser, and search the term “suspension of disbelief.”

Sure, you remember it from grade 8 or 9 English Lit class. Coined originally by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it’s the idea that, if a writer could infuse “a semblance of truth” into a tale of almost complete fantasy, then the reader would suspend judgment over the implausible storyline.

In other words, take a little truth, a lot of fiction… and stir. If the mix is right, there’s an audience for it. In Hollywood it’s the foundation of all great movies.

Darren Aronofsky knows the game all too well. As Hollywood celebrities go, he’s as hot as they get. With director and producer credits for The Wrestler, Black Swan and more recently Noah, and as writer for more than half a dozen scripts, Aronofsky lives and breathes Hollywood.

And with Our Trip to the Climate War’s Ground Zero, (Daily Beast, Sept. 19, 2014) he really wants you to believe in his story-telling.

Start with the whole premise of this recent attack piece: as with his film Noah, Aronofsky’s oil sands story is modeled on Paradise Lost. Man and woman, he says, are kicked out of paradise, and later the land is so filled with violence that God destroys creation.

“If you destroy creation,” Aronofsky writes, “you destroy yourselves.”

Here’s the problem: Aronofsky is a film-maker – he trades in highly emotional drama. He’s rich and famous because he’s all about fiction. When I want information about climate or energy or sustainability, I don’t look to Hollywood superstars. I seek out technical experts like International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol.

Birol is on record as stating booming oil sands production can be consistent with global progress on climate change, which requires a greater focus on energy efficiency and reducing emissions from coal-fired electricity, especially in places such as China and India.

“If the necessary [mitigation] measures are taken in terms of the production and transportation of oil sands, this will not have any significant impact on CO2 emissions growth,” the IEA’s Birol told the Globe & Mail at the end of 2012. “Compared to the major emitting countries, this is not peanuts, it is a small fraction of peanuts.”

Technical experts like Birol are less driven by dramatic devices and biblical references to paradise lost, and are more focussed on data.

So when Aronofsky portrays the oil sands as ‘the climate war’s ground zero,’ I defer not to the Hollywood fantasy factory but to greenhouse gas emissions tracking numbers. They tell me that Canada’ GHG emissions amount to 1.58 percent of the world’s emissions, and the oil sands amount to 0.15 percent.

I accept that climate change is real, and that oil sands producers must continue to improve their performance – as they are doing. But as ‘ground zeros’ go, 0.15 percent is pretty inconsequential – as Birol pointed out.

And it pales in comparison to the GHG emissions of China (more than 26 percent of global GHG emissions) or, for that matter, the US (more than 17 percent). But those facts aren’t part of what Aronofsky’s might think of as his fictional ‘story arc.’

Still, let’s look at Hollywood a little further. Researchers for California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard found there are 13 oil fields in California, plus crude oil blends from at least six other countries, that generate upstream GHG emissions higher than those of Canadian oil sands blends.

And as a Hollywood mogul, Aronofsky might like to know the same study found the “dirtiest oil in North America” is not produced in Canada, but just outside Los Angeles, where the Placerita oil field generates about twice the level of upstream GHG emissions as Canada’s oil sands.

Look. I know Mr. Aronofsky has bad days. The late Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer said on the 2006 release of The Fountain that Mr. Aronofsky’s “outlook on life remains too constantly pessimistic for my taste.” On the oil sands, Mr. Aronofsky should take heart.

After all, he’s writing about something that’s crucial to some 478,000 proud Canadians and their families. In 2012, aboriginal companies in the oil sands region earned more than $1.8 billion from work with oil sands companies. And over the past 14 years, aboriginal companies in the region have earned more than $8 billion in revenue, making the region one of Canada’s largest First Nations employers. Mr. Aronofsky owes it to all of them to be more factual.

Mr. Aronofsky claims he was told the Government of Canada has eliminated “most oversight and regulation” in order to make extraction “easier” for companies.

Someone might have told him that, but it’s just wrong.

One comprehensive analysis found Alberta’s oversight and regulation to be as stringent as – and more transparent than – the US, and with more consequences for those not in compliance. The study compared environmental laws and government processes with respect to stringency, transparency and compliance.

Alberta came out on top.

Mr. Aronofsky is so wrapped up in the tradition of the fantasy screenwriter that he misses the important information. But that’s what you might expect from another Hollywood elitist with too much power, too little knowledge – and a knack for telling a very tall tale.

Cody Battershill is a Calgary realtor and founder / spokeperson for CanadaAction.ca, a volunteer organization that supports Canadian energy development and the environmental, social and economic benefits that come with it.