Most attendees of last month’s “Big Guns” Stampede breakfast put on by Calgary’s oil and gas industry were there for the pancakes, sausages, and “frac juice” cocktails, not the speeches. And so, over the happily chattering sea of cowboy hats and plaid, I had to listen hard just to make out parts of the following:
“We have been beaten to death by the eco-alarmists.... We’ve got people, foreign-funded, taking us to task.... To the eco-alarmists: You have touched the bear. You have awoken the giant. We’re pissed and we’re not going to stand for it.”
Vague public heraldings of coming retribution against foreign-funded environmentalists are generally not part of my childhood memories of Stampede breakfasts. But, then, in those days, Albertans weren’t being told they’re the targets of a coordinated plot.
Across the country’s media for the past year and a half or so — particularly in outlets owned by Canada’s dominant corporate media empire, Postmedia — one can find piece after piece after piece about long-running machinations by U.S. charities and foundations to interfere with Canadian politics by fomenting tar sands opposition throughout the country.
It culminated and reified at the start of last month with Alberta premier Jason Kenney announcing a $2.5-million government inquiry into “foreign-funded special interests” opposing the tar sands. And it will likely resurface again in the Conservatives’ federal election campaign later this year.
There is no reason to take the actual claims of this (absurd) narrative seriously, as other writers have argued in detail.
Rather, what we ought to be concerned about is the narrative’s popularity, because what it reveals is something ugly at the heart of the climate crisis: the importance of dehumanization.
The uses of unpeople
A grisly sorting is underway. As climate change forces our political and economic systems to contend with the problem of who really matters, it is sieving us into two species: people, whose rights are inalienable and deserve full respect and consideration, and unpeople, whose burdensome rights and humanity get stripped away wherever they interfere with state-capital aims.
Those who can be degenerated into unpeople perform a crucial function for the contemporary order. If they were recognized as fully human, we would need to undertake a rapid transition away from fossil fuels in order to protect their inviolable rights. Having a humanity that can be conveniently stripped away, however, permits something clearly more important: the prolonging of the period during which the economy can stay wedded to the old energy infrastructure; the ultra rich can horde the wealth we might otherwise marshall towards a renewable energy transition; and political elites can hold power by campaigning as though we need not make a choice between continued fossil fuel dependence and a habitable climate. (Consider how just last month it was determined to be in the public interest to proceed with a tar sands mine, despite adverse effects on Indigenous communities.)
Which brings us back to the foreign-funded-environmentalist conspiracy. Read through enough of it and you will notice how it is presented to steer people towards two conclusions: without well-funded foreign interference there would be much less opposition in Canada against continued fossil fuel development (and this would be a good thing), and Canada’s democracy is being unjustly undermined by outside influence. It's unpeople who make these conclusions plausible.
If on some level you do not register the humanity of those, say, on the scarred and chemicalized front lines of fossil fuel extraction, or subject to the grim lottery of roving, now-weekly climate disasters, or about to be disinherited of a habitable world, it might seem both unlikely and undesirable that there would be so many people organizing to fight for them. With this gap in your understanding, you might then be more susceptible to being swayed by suddenly plausible tales about hidden agendas, collusions, and economic sabotage organized by “foreign radicals,” who, unfathomably, want to phase out fossil fuels.
Similarly, if it does not readily occur to you that there will be somebody harmed by Canada’s commitment to a ruined earth, then it would be outrageous — a “massively disruptive intrusion into Canadian affairs,” as the founding CEO of Encana Corp has put it — for outside groups to presume to tell us what we can or can’t do with our resources.
Dehumanization of this sort has far-reaching implications.
Last month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights issued a report reviewing how climate change is “an unconscionable assault on the poor.”
It warns of the possibility of “climate apartheid” under a neoliberal climate response marked by creeping privatization of essential services where “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” An ongoing failure by the human rights community to win more serious climate responses means that “the enjoyment of all human rights by vast numbers of people is gravely threatened” and “human rights might not survive the coming upheaval.”
It is a stark reminder that human rights do not exist as hard facts, but as fragile concepts, ones we have to declare to be true in order to make real. Human rights are aspirational, assertions that there exists a minimum standard below which a dignified life cannot be led, and that no person should be left to live below it. Believing in them requires trust in their universality — which is why, as climate change sets in, it is so worrying to see those rights holding true for some but not for others, for people but not for unpeople.
For instance, people are supposed to have the human right to a home. Unpeople, however, are now needing to discover for themselves by what passages they will escape the diminished viability of their homelands and by what channels they will make their way through violent borders designed to be increasingly impermeable to their kind.
People have rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assemblage, rights all the more important in times of injustice. Unpeople, meanwhile, have their eyes lathered with tear gas as they demonstrate non-violently for climate action, or have police calling for tougher sentences against them to discourage the public nuisance of fighting peacefully for a habitable world.
People have the right to live in security. Unpeople can be consigned to the escalating conflicts predicted for a warmed world, or abandoned to find their own way to recover from disaster.
The process of dehumanization, whether around the world or closer to home in Postmedia’s conspiracy-pushing columns, splits our species in two. The struggle for a habitable world is not now just about clean energy. It is also about human worth.