Tar Wars:

Oil, Environment and Alberta’s Image

By Rob Norris

 

by Geo Takach
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA PRESS
2017/$34.95/256 pp.

From an outsider’s perspective—in my case, glancing in from Saskatchewan—it remains a mystery as to why the government of Alberta’s messaging about the oil sands often misses the mark. Or, borrowing from Triple Crown, a book by Alberta’s late premier Jim Prentice and professor Jean-Sébastien Rioux: Why have contemporary governments in Alberta “lurched from message to message” regarding pipelines and oil sands?

In his extensively researched and politically provocative new book, Tar Wars, award-winning author Geo Takach offers an instructive if disquieting response: Communicating about local and global environmental issues through media both “reflects and shapes our view of ourselves as communities and as a society.” In other words, because “identity is produced through communication [and] society communicates increasingly in images,” Alberta—where images have “played a formative role”—has evolved into an “international battleground” in a “popularly framed… all-or-nothing conflict between economic development and environmental protection.”

While Takach rejects this zero-sum premise, he posits that the scale of Alberta’s “bit-sands,” or bituminous sands, and associated industrial developments serves as “an escalating magnet for international interest and controversy.” While global investments have shaped Alberta’s oil sands, so too have “expressions of concern” from human rights defenders, rock stars, Hollywood celebrities, Indigenous peoples and other social-justice advocates “at home and abroad.”

Under the slogan “Canada’s Energy Province,” Alberta governments keep grappling with an “ever deepening green consciousness” within and beyond provincial boundaries. At the London Olympics, for instance, Premier Alison Redford drew on a short, publicly unreleased 2012 video replete with “time-honoured images—Rocky Mountains, vast blue skies, canola fields, cowboys and northern lights” as well as a “quick shot of an iconic yellow truck in a bitumen mine.” This example highlights a core concept of Tar Wars: “place branding.” Through both argument and evidence, Takach reinforces that “the protective interest of the state”—quite simply, growing governmental concern about profile and prestige—cannot be overlooked in this communications conflict, especially given “the rising competition for human, physical and financial resources in the international marketplace.”

Takach introduces and analyzes various frames—including “ethical oil,” compromise, eco-justice and ecocide—which seek to brand Alberta in different ways, through “a volley of documentary films and videos” offering “a barrage of images” of Alberta. The book—originally a Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Calgary—focuses on works that were produced locally and globally between 2004 and 2015 and, for the most part, released in “theatres, on television and online.” Takach’s extensive analysis highlights why Alberta is “perhaps the most visible flashpoint in the rising international tensions accompanying issues of environment and economy.”

While he could have jettisoned more of the dissertation’s dense parlance—in the spirit of his popular and playful 2010 book, Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up?—Takach ultimately offers attentive citizens, policy wonks and communications pros a solid “case study in environmental communication.” In short, Takach ably analyzes “conflicting images of Alberta” and explores many subtle yet lasting linkages “among land, natural resources and people in a world shaped increasingly by global economic forces and pervaded by the power of pictures.”

—Rob Norris was a Saskatchewan MLA, with various cabinet portfolios, 2007–2015. He is a senior strategist at the U of S.

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