Life on the barricades

By Jean Hodgkinson

This country does not have a culture that accommodates fighters for causes -Raffique Shah

As Dr Wayne Kublalsingh continues his hunger strike for the environment in Trinidadian obscurity the world’s news reporters have descended on Doha, Qatar. There, the COP climate negotiators scramble like an overworked ant colony; air-conditioned tunnels protect the drones from the sizzling Arabian sun as they scurry to create the impression UN-sponsored barricades are being thrown up in anticipation of an epic struggle for civilization’s very survival. But every government on earth is actually too busy working on other projects right now.

Raffique Shah has insisted from the beginning that Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike will do nothing to alter government policy, and that it was better ended sooner rather than later so the good doctor might live to fight more profitably another day. As if to prove Mr Shah correct, earlier this week Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar said “the revitalisation of crude oil production is a stated policy objective of my government. The highway to Point Fortin will enhance and facilitate [these] efforts.” That’s as plain as it gets. The upside in all of this is that the urge to develop any and all oil deposits isn’t a uniquely Trinidadian pathology.

In late October a group called Oil Change International released a report “looking at what the oil industry is building or is expected to build in the next eight years.” It estimated worldwide oil production will hit 110.6 million barrels per day by 2020, and notes “Canada’s tar sands, America’s hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling are at the forefront of this oil boom.” Around that same time the U.S. Energy Department “forecast U.S. production of crude and other hydrocarbons will average 11.4 million barrels per day next year, a record for the U.S. and just below Saudi Arabia’s output of 11.6 million barrels.”

On the downside, world markets don’t much heed the Trinidad oil lobby when international quotas or price freezes are under consideration. And let’s not forget the never-ending news bulletins reporting shifting climate and rising seas and burning Amazonian jungle and expanding Mongolian desert and melting ice caps and more frequent, more violent flash floods tearing through the hills of Diego Martin. So the country might just mash up the south end of the island exploiting all those tar sands for very little if anything in return. As every industrialized nation knows by now, a farm lasts longer (and smells better) than an open-pit mine.

It would therefore appear Dr Kublalsingh has misjudged the temper of these times or the psychological makeup (culture Shah calls it) of his own nation. Or else his timing is off, and people who would otherwise rally to his side are too pre-occupied with trying to make ends meet in an economy struggling to get back on its feet. But this explanation leads back to Shah’s initial observation, which doesn’t mean that Dr Kublalsingh’s fight isn’t worth fighting but only that his fellow citizens are more interested in their own today than their children’s tomorrow. It also means there may be more effective methods of persuasion than suicide by starvation.

If in fact southern Trinidad’s La Brea tar pits are harnessed for producing oil it will join an illustrious set of exotic locales already profiting from this profoundly destructive technique. Northern Alberta has already produced some of the most fantastic moonscape photos you’re likely to see without actually visiting the Moon or some nearby asteroid. And in late October it was announced the first American tar-sands mining operation has been approved by the state of Utah. So it’s contagious.

But there will always remain big differences between tar sands operations in Utah or northern Alberta on the one hand, and southern Trinidad on the other. Trinidad sits nearer to Hurricane Alley, so would probably have more to gain if we could prevent global warming from intensifying the storms, hopefully ensuring that when they churn up an “area of ocean with twelve-foot seas” it is somewhat less than the “1.4 million square miles, or nearly half the area of the contiguous United States” that was churned up by Hurricane Sandy, who then flooded NYC, NJ, etc in late October 2012.

And there’s something else to consider. With most projections now estimating a sea-level rise anywhere between seven and 23 inches in the next few decades, it remains for the government to answer one question: Where you going to put all those people when/if water invades southern Trinidad and turns it into an uninhabitable swamp, a corrosive mix of sea water and toxic bitumen?