Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An environmentalist goes to a wedding...

My best friend from high school is getting married in two days, and I sit with her on the living room floor of her cousin's house, surrounded by stacks of seating cards, menus, candles, wedding favors and picture frames that have to be sorted into boxes and brought to the wedding venue. It's the first time we've spent much time together since graduating from nearby colleges six years ago. She moved to Houston to take a high-paying, high-stress job with Exxon-Mobile, and I spent a year volunteering in a developing country, then moved to rural Vermont. I still have a card that she gave me before I left. “Don't become a total hippie!” she jokingly wrote, (correctly) envisioning a life in which I would forego daily showers, enjoy the taste of granola and exchange ideas with liberal environmentalists.

In high school, she and I became friends because we looked so much alike that even our mothers couldn't always tell us apart in photographs. We adopted similar styles, dyed our hair blonde and listened to lots of Led Zeppelin. Our last hurrah after college was a road trip to a music festival in Tennessee, and even then, things had started to change. A week after the festival, I wrote in my journal: “A. left for Texas this morning and it feels like the end of an era. Other people have moved away and come back, including myself, and yet it still felt like the same time period – the years tick by and we get older, but time is seamless nonetheless. Now it feels like that seam, which had been stretching and stretching almost imperceptibly, has finally broken. I'm sad, I'm nostalgic, but it was time for this to end. We've changed too much.”

Other close friends from that time period have visited her in Texas, but I have not. Her life down there seemed so removed from the choices I was making. She'd gone from ripped jeans and paisley headbands to pearls and high heels, and I stuck largely with the torn jeans aesthetic. Was I immature, and she was simply growing up? I wasn't sure. While she was turning to anti-depressants, removing herself ever farther from the natural world and working for a company that values profit above all else, I was participating in conservation projects and working for idealistic non-profit organizations. Exxon-Mobile came to represent to me everything that was wrong with the world: reckless capitalism, corporate irresponsibility, political takeover, environmental rape and disregard for climate change, and I was appalled that my friend could work there. Yet at the same time as I distanced myself from her, I partially understood her decision. Her family didn't have much money, her father was ill and she had the opportunity to help. She had the opportunity to succeed. When you grow up in poverty, financial success is a powerful motivator.

Still, I was floored when she asked me to be in her wedding. But I accepted, thinking that maybe it would lead us to rekindle our friendship, or help me realize that the people who work for Big Oil are people too. After all, how often does an environmentalist get to sit down at a table with a bunch of Exxon-Mobile folks?

Now, two nights before the big event, we're drinking wine and looking at pictures and things are going remarkably well.

Then the other bridesmaids leave the room, and she leans toward me, conspiratorially.

“E. and I might be moving to Canada,” she says in a whisper. “I haven't told anyone yet.”

Canada! I think, envisioning rich forests and open spaces. “Where?”

“Alberta,” she says, and then I understand. Tar sands.

She sees my face. She can read my reaction. She assures me that tar sand mining is safer for the environment than off-shore drilling, and will move us closer toward North American energy independence. It's the future.

I try to be tactful – this is, after all, a celebration of love. I casually mention the pristine, carbon-absorbing, wildlife-rich boreal forest being ripped up for a few billion barrels of oil.

“Eh,” she says dismissively. “It's a wasteland up there. There's enough wilderness left in the world.”

I nearly bite my tongue off. Thankfully, the other bridesmaids come back, and the conversation reverts to safe topics like how to tie the bows on our dresses.

The next day I find myself sitting at the rehearsal dinner with a thoroughly Texan uncle of the groom and the bride's quirky uncle from Pennsylvania. Just when I think the conversation will revolve around skiing, grandkids and the weather, it swerves unexpectedly into fracking territory. The uncle from Pennsylvania is solidly against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas because of the risks to the environment and human health, and the lack of research and oversight. The uncle from Texas seems to consider it a marvel of modern science and something that big oil companies should be pursuing full steam ahead. There is a bit of polite debate and the conversation ends awkwardly.

The inescapable sheen of oil has coated our lives. Just because I consider myself an environmentalist, drive a fuel-efficient car and try to buy food that hasn't been shipped great distances doesn't mean I am not dependent on fossil fuels. More importantly, just because I too rely on fossil fuels doesn't mean that I'm hypocritical in believing that the only path to a sustainable future is one that lessens this dependence.

After the wedding ceremony and the dancing and eating and drinking, I washed the makeup off my face and went to bed without having reached any conclusions. I'd hoped that being part of a wedding funded by the oil industry would have led me to some sage little nuggets to write about: if we surround ourselves with like-minded people, we will only further alienate ourselves from dialogue and change, for example. Or, underneath our different political, social and environmental beliefs, we're all just imperfect human beings, trying to do what we think is best. Or, we ultimately realized that our friendship was more important than our differences.

But all of those are too trite and too neatly wrapped to be fully honest. The truth is that while communication is important, all the dialogue in the world is probably not enough to challenge someone's belief that we should mine the hell out of the tar sands because there's enough wilderness elsewhere in the world. The truth is that my friend and I will probably continue to drift further apart, and she will become further entrenched in her world and I in mine.

(Tar sands photo from Wisconsin Sierra Club)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network