If you want to see hell on earth do an image search for “Alberta Tar Sands.” You’ll see Boreal forests in the great Canadian wilds savaged into some kind of alien landscape beyond any recognition of a creation God called “very good.” Deep craters spiral down to black rock, pools of water filled with the heavy metals of mine waste. Nothing lives here—it is a landscape dominated by machines, bulldozer tracks and massive mining vehicles with monster truck tires. The people working the machines are temporary—here for a job they know won’t last forever. Thousands of them live in make shift towns, built to serve their needs until everything of value is extracted and they move on, not unlike the “hell on wheels” railroad towns of the Old West. As one anonymous employee working in the Tar Sands described it in Rolling Stone: “You can smell the oil in the air, and smog hangs across the otherwise crisp northern horizon.”
Tar Sands oil was once a dirty, low quality commodity few companies had any interest in taping. But with all the easy to get oil drying up, its becoming profitable to take bigger risks and processing costs to keep fueling the growing oil economy. China and India are quickly becoming car countries and much of this oil is meant for export. That, in fact, is the whole point of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline. Despite the outright lies of some politicians, the whole point of getting oil to the Gulf is to get it on a ship and into the global oil market.
To extract this oil, along with opening new oil fields in the melting arctic and continuing deep water drilling despite a proven lack of ability to prevent leaks (as demonstrated in the multi-month gusher that was the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster), will mean game over for the climate. We have to slow down our extraction and thus our burning. We need to move oil prices higher rather than keep them lower. We are already reaping catastrophic rewards for our century and a half of fossil fuel driven civilization, but we are quickly moving toward doubling and tripling of those effects as global temperatures rise even more. To stop new drilling and wean ourselves from a fossil fuel economy is simply what reality demands, but reality takes a temporary seat in the bought and paid for platforms of politicians (the Koch Brothers, who are very active in the Tar Sands oil extraction business, spent $100 million dollars in the midterms to usher their political pawns to victory).Yesterday, there was a welcome and surprising stay against the Keystone XL pipeline—a project that is a kind of symbolic choice for our nation. Desperate to win her run off in Louisiana, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu pushed to pass the Keystone pipeline over the threat of a presidential veto. Through heavy grass-roots pressure from those who care more about our long term survival than a quick surge in temporary jobs, enough senators continued their opposition to keep Landrieu from pushing approval of the pipeline through. It was victory, but it was not the end of the battle. There is a lot of money ridding on this and the oil industry is the richest business community in the world.
The hell on earth of the Tar Sands is as good an illustration of the effect of disordered human desire in the world as there is. To build the Keystone XL pipeline, much less continue the extraction of tar sands oil, would be a move to invite the spread of this hell across the globe. With the continuation of the fossil fuel economy we will see grasslands continue to turn to desert, forests continue to burn beyond control, drought rage, oceans swallow island nations, cities flood, and hurricanes grow in strength and intensity.
As the church, beholden to the God who never revoked the claim of creation’s very goodness, we must fight this hell into which the evil desires of our age is leading us. We must work to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven, the alternate possibility of our world, into our here and now. To heal strip-mined land, to restore ravaged forests, to grow healthy gardens and graze animals on grasslands—these are the activities that will begin our healing and welcome heaven here. And at the same time, now is the time to repent and turn from the economy of coal and oil. This is not a repentance we can do alone. We have to work in our communities to build infrastructure that does not depend on driving oil dependent vehicles, we need to move close to our work and move our work to where we live. We need to walk and bike more and drive less until we drive not at all. We need to raise a prophetic voice against those who would worship the great Baal “The Economy” instead of turning toward a life of limits guided by the Love that called this world, and all creation within it, very good.
I look forward to the day when heaven is here on earth and our work turns from extraction into cultivation. I can imagine the people of heaven working on the barren landscape of the tar sands, making compost and planting trees that will be for the healing of the nations. I hope that day comes sooner than later. We have the collective choice, right now, to welcome heaven rather than make hell.